In a column today, Washington Post political columnist Chris Cillizza writes,
“The simple fact is that Trump has never had real friends in the sense you or I think of the term. The relationship world of Trump has long been split into two groups: (1) his family and (2) people who work for him. And people who work for you are rarely your actual friends.”
This was written in the context of an article titled “The very peculiar isolation of Donald Trump.”
What’s going on here? It is definitely one more “othering” exercise from the news media, part of a concerted effort to avoid “normalizing” this President so that tactics previously regarded as unthinkable, undemocratic and unAmerican will be accepted by the public when they are used against him. The message is that this President is strange, weird. He’s not like us. He’s a monster. Today, for example, MSNBC’s Katy Tur insinuated that the President might be planning to start murdering journalists, asking a guest.
“As we know, there’s, since 2000, been a couple dozen suspicious deaths of journalists in Russia who came out against the government there.Donald Trump has made no secret about going after journalists and his distaste for any news that doesn’t agree with him here. Do you find that this is a dangerous path he is heading down?”
I was struck by Cillizza’s column because the topic is one of several upon which I wrote my honors thesis in American government. (If you are in Cambridge, Mass., you can find a copy in Widener Library.) Cillizza’s statement made me realize, for the first time, really: “Ah! There’s at least one aspect of his personality that is typical of American Presidents!” I studied exactly that aspect of Presidential biographies to test my thesis that the U.S. Presidency attracted a specific character type, and the type was not “normal” by the public standards.
Cillizza speaks of Trump being “a man apart” as if this makes him a freak in the White House, and as if being isolated is an unusual state for a leader. Neither is true. Leaders become leaders at an early age precisely because they see themselves as people apart from the crowd. They don’t tend to have real friends, and not only because an unsettling number of them are sociopaths and narcissists. Leaders will often keep close to them loyal individuals whom they trust, but these are not what you or I would call friendships.
Quick: who is Bill Clinton’s closest friend? George W. Bush’s closest friend? Obama’s best friend? If there really were such close friends, don’t you think we’d know about them? LBJ, JFK, Eisenhower: who were their close personal friends? Who was Lincoln’s close friend, once he became a national leader? Who was George Washington’s friend? John Adams, we all know, was “obnoxious and disliked,” and his sole confidant was Abigail. Even many of the Presidents who had reputations for being garrulous, like Jefferson, kept a group of friends who were wider than deep. (Thomas Jefferson, moreover, had a bad habit of betraying his “friends.”) Richard Nixon was often linked to Charles Gregory “Bebe” Rebozo a Florida banker and businessman who became famous as Nixon’s friend and confidant. I found little evidence that he was a close friend in the normal sense of the word. He was merely the closest thing to one Nixon had.
Ronald Reagan had many friends, but his biographers all describe him as distant, with his only close friend being Nancy. This, again, is the norm for Presidents, and the leadership type generally. Yes, most of them are weird. That’s why they are leaders. It is the miscast Presidents who tend to break the mold. Grant had close friends, and was an easy mark for scoundrels. Harding wanted everyone to love him; he was also manipulated by those he thought were his “friends.” Gerald Ford had close friends, but he was an accidental, unelected President.
William Howard Taft thought Teddy Roosevelt was his best friend, yet TR turned on him because he didn’t like Taft’s performance in the White House. By all accounts,Taft was broken-hearted, for he was not a Presidential leader type. What kind of man abandons his best friend because he doesn’t do his own job the way the alleged friend would like? Teddy Roosevelt was that kind of man. Taft wasn’t.
My question is, then, what we should call Cillizza’s statement? It is almost certainly true. What isn’t true is the implication he attaches to it. This aspect of President Trump just is not remarkable, nor is it ominous. This is the way leaders who have skill at leadership usually are. By suggesting that this President’s isolation is remarkable, Cillizza is misleading his readers and conveying a false conclusion using accurate facts. But he is omitting a crucial fact that is essential to understanding the story, as well as the man.
My guess is that Cillizza didn’t do this intentionally. He is ignorant about Presidential character, and confirmation bias did the rest. He already thinks Trump is “the other,” like most if not all of his colleagues, so the fact that Trump has no true confidantes outside of his family confirmed what he already believed.
The truth is, however, that for Presidents, especially effective ones, the absence of close friends is normal.
The well-adjusted Presidents were the weird ones.