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Maybe They’re Just Bad People

VIA NEW YORK TIMES, By Michelle Goldberg

Seven years ago, a former aide to Ralph Reed — who also worked, briefly, for Paul Manafort — published a tawdry, shallow memoir that is also one of the more revealing political books I’ve ever read. Lisa Baron was a pro-choice, pro-gay rights, hard-partying Jew who nonetheless made a career advancing the fortunes of the Christian right. She opened her book with an anecdote about performing oral sex on a future member of the George W. Bush administration during the 2000 primary, which, she wrote, “perfectly summed up my groupie-like relationship to politics at that time — I wanted it, I worshiped it, and I went for it.”

It’s not exactly a secret that politics is full of amoral careerists lusting — literally or figuratively — for access to power. Still, if you’re interested in politics because of values and ideas, it can be easier to understand people who have foul ideologies than those who don’t have ideologies at all. Steve Bannon, a quasi-fascist with delusions of grandeur, makes more sense to me than Anthony Scaramucci, a political cipher who likes to be on TV. I don’t think I’m alone. Consider all the energy spent trying to figure out Ivanka Trump’s true beliefs, when she’s shown that what she believes most is that she’s entitled to power and prestige.

Baron’s book, “Life of the Party: A Political Press Tart Bares All,” is useful because it is a self-portrait of a cynical, fame-hungry narcissist, a common type but one underrepresented in the stories we tell about partisan combat. A person of limited self-awareness — she seemed to think readers would find her right-wing exploits plucky and cute — Baron became Reed’s communications director because she saw it as a steppingstone to her dream job, White House press secretary, a position she envisioned in mostly sartorial terms. (“Outfits would be planned around the news of the day,” she wrote.) Reading Baron’s story helped me realize emotionally something I knew intellectually. It’s tempting for those of us who interpret politics for a living to overstate the importance of competing philosophies. We shouldn’t forget the enduring role of sheer vanity.

That brings us to Monday’s New York Times article about Bill White and his husband, Bryan Eure, headlined “How a Liberal Couple Became Two of N.Y.’s Biggest Trump Supporters.” The answer: ego. A former big-ticket Democratic fund-raiser, White went straight from Hillary Clinton’s election night party to Donald Trump’s when he realized which way the wind was blowing. (“I didn’t want to be part of that misery pie,” he said of the dreary vibe at the Clinton event.) Another turning point came earlier this year when, he claims, Chelsea Clinton snubbed him at Ralph Lauren’s Polo Bar in Manhattan, leading him to call Donald Trump Jr., who offered to come to him right away.

This story, like Baron’s book, is arresting in its picture of shameless, unvarnished thirst. White and Eure mouth some talking points about disliking “identity politics” and valuing “authenticity.” Like a lot of Trump apologists, White insists the president isn’t racist because African-American employment figures have improved during his administration. But the lurid opportunism that’s driving him and his husband to embrace Trump is obvious. Such opportunism is far from rare; it’s just not often that we see it exhibited so starkly.

Trump is hardly the first politician to attract self-serving followers — White and Eure, after all, used to be Clintonites. (The guest list at their lavish wedding, The Times once wrote, “read like a telephone book, if the White Pages printed a version containing only the rich and influential.”) But Trump is unique as a magnet for grifters, climbers and self-promoters, in part because decent people won’t associate with him. With the exception of national security professionals sticking around to stop Trump from blowing up the world, there are two kinds of people in the president’s orbit — the immoral and the amoral. There are sincere nativists, like Bannon and senior adviser Stephen Miller, and people of almost incomprehensible insincerity.

In many ways, the insincere Trumpists are the most frustrating. Because they don’t really believe in Trump’s belligerent nationalism and racist conspiracy theories, we keep expecting them to feel shame or remorse. But they’re not insincere because they believe in something better than Trumpism. Rather, they believe in very little. They are transactional in a way that makes no psychological sense to those of us who see politics as a moral drama; they might as well all be wearing jackets saying, “I really don’t care, do u?”

Baron’s book helped me grasp what public life is about for such people. “I loved being in the middle of something big, and the biggest thing in my life was Ralph,” she wrote in one of her more plaintive passages. “Without him, I was nobody.” Such a longing for validation is underrated as a political motivator. Senator Lindsey Graham, another insincere Trumpist, once justified his sycophantic relationship with the president by saying, “If you knew anything about me, I want to be relevant.” Some people would rather be on the wrong side than on the outside.