Editor’s Note: This piece originally appeared at Acculturated and is reprinted here with permission.
Nero may have fiddled while Rome burned, but it was the flattery of his courtiers that convinced the emperor he could get away with it.
I’m neither a historian nor a political insider, so I would be playing the fool to compare Trump’s idiosyncrasies to Nero’s enormities. But I recognize that like any powerful ruler, the president shares the risk of flattery’s attendance among his intimates. And if the disgrace surrounding the rise and fall of Anthony Scaramucci is an accurate gauge of the sort of person the White House favors (even if it’s only for ten days), then the president has a serious problem of indulging flattery.
Upon reading Plutarch, Trump would find that Scaramucci is an easily identifiable example of the flattery the president has allowed to run rampant in the West Wing. Scaramucci (like Chris Christie during the campaign) gained Trump’s favor with a studied imitation of Trump’s rhetorical style. More often, however, flattering obsequiousness comes from people who ought to command public respect. In a televised cabinet meeting this June, nearly all of the president’s senior advisers — a crew including then–chief of staff Reince Priebus, Vice President Mike Pence, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions — delivered cloying compliments about Trump’s unmatched leadership abilities while he grinned along in appreciation.
To show how a flatterer positions himself as a friend of rulers, Plutarch details nine different types and explains how to expose and rid oneself of these parasites before they suck one dry with false praise.
Plutarch’s advice for disarming flattery rests on his observation that the most dangerous flatterer is oneself. No one is more devious in bestowing false praise and more willing to accept the flatteries of those surrounding him. As a longtime celebrity and someone who values his self-presentation highly, Trump needs to be more aware of self-flattery than other men in his position would need to be. If the president becomes too focused on bolstering his image, he could quickly devolve from an executive susceptible to flattery into a schemer and a Machiavel.
Accusations of Machiavellianism have already been leveled against Trump in the case of Scaramucci. And there is a marked similarity to the demise of the Mooch and Ramiro d’Orco in The Prince (although Scaramucci’s fall was less bloody). In both instances, once they had served their purposes as ruthless purgators, their leaders swiftly dispatched them, leaving everyone watching “at once satisfied and dismayed,” as The Prince describes it.
To avoid becoming either a flatterer or a disingenuous ruler, one must act as a good friend — tactfully acknowledging one’s shortcomings and accepting the wisdom in opinions beyond one’s own
It’s fitting that Trump would find himself susceptible to flattery and Machiavellianism at the same time. The two are often intertwined. But Plutarch has a solution to prevent rulers from indulging in their worst passions. To avoid becoming either a flatterer or a disingenuous ruler, one must act as a good friend — tactfully acknowledging one’s shortcomings and accepting the wisdom in opinions beyond one’s own.
“How to Tell a Flatterer from a Friend” is a long essay; I understand the president might not have time to read it. If that’s the case, he could just tune in to his local Washington, D.C., rap station, 95.5 WPGC, where, every hour or so, they broadcast Kendrick Lamar, who compresses the soul of Plutarch’s advice into two words: “Be humble.”
— Nic Rowan is an intern at the Washington Free Beacon.