Even once supportive top Congressional leaders within his own party once euphoric over judicial appointments now openly criticize Trump’s domestic and diplomatic moves. Republican Senator Bill Cassidy, lamenting Trump’s volatility complained: ‘You want to be able to draw a bead on where your leader is going to be in a week or two or three.” Republican Majority Leader Senator Mitch McConnell expressed “dismay” over Trump’s loss of Secretary of Defense James Mattis.
Trump’s responses to these critics has been to belittle them and insult them just as did Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond when she shouted into the projection beam re-watching her old silent film hits “Oh, those idiot producers. Those imbeciles! Haven’t they got any eyes? Have they forgotten what a star looks like?” Desmond says. “I’ll show them. I’ll be up there again! So help me!”
Trump channels Desmond as a siege mentality has set in at the White House. Inside reports indicate that when he often becomes impatient with advisers, he scowls while reclining in his chair with crossed arms, erupting with bellows of “Freaking idiots!” he calls his aides. Except he uses a more pungent word than “freaking. When Citizen Kane’s John Foster Kane’s political standing is derailed by a sex scandal, his aides ask what the American public will believe and Kane barks back “They will believe what I tell them to believe.” Kane’s public career was anchored on personal vilification over public policy—fashioning himself as an underdog, promising to have his political rivals convicted.
While Desmond and Kane retreat into fortresses protected by sycophantic aids, even those loyal aides are suspected of betrayal. Desmond’s former director and husband becomes dependent upon her in an abusive relationship as a servant who promotes the delusion of her sustained popularity. Her hired scriptwriter is shot when he dares to tell her the truth. Kane fires his own best friend and top editor for similar offenses and went on a rage when his second wife left him after puncturing the mythic image of their relationship.
It is not clear that Trump is drawn to these two favorite films as cautionary tales of megalomaniacs who become embittered, delusional, and alone when their hubris alienates friends and enemies alike. An insightful 2016 Buzzfeed commentary considered how Trump failed to learn the lessons of Citizen Kane—and won.
However, there may still be hope. Trump told me during a 2006 Apprentice-related public debate between us, he has watched those who fail and learned from it. He cited an unexpected meeting of once great residential home builder William Levitt sitting on a curb having been turned away from a party. Levitt looked up and yelled “hello” to a sympathetic Trump who did not recognize him at first. Trump told me “the man had bought back his company after selling it to ITT to become a billionaire. After personally securing the assets on the repurchase, he lost everything. You’ve got to know where to draw the line. I don’t draw the line where other people do—to be noticed—but I really do have a line.”
Perhaps, with their delayed return to Xanadu (Mar-a-Lago) this week, Jared and Ivanka can help dad find that line again without them too being told “You’re fired!” However even they cannot do it alone. His core leadership lever is to divide and conquer. A bipartisan Senate delegation must intervene quietly, as would a functional board of directors, and say this cannot continue. Ad hoc counter public insults only antagonize him into further dangerous acts. He hates ridicule as much as failure but can listen to forceful quiet dissent. As Ambassador Andrew Young advised recently, at our December 13 CEO Summit, “you do not call an alcoholic a ‘drunk’ and think you’ve fixed the problem.”
Jeffrey Sonnenfeld is author of The Hero’s Farewell (Oxford University Press)