I once had a job in which the staffers liked to say that we all had a timeshare on the doghouse. We called it “the Pomeranian palace,” which lent – as Jane Austen might’ve observed – such an elegance to our misery, for no matter how talented you were or how much you worked, eventually the wheel turned to you, because that was the way our bosses rolled.
Indeed, there was never any pleasing them, because many were egotists – perhaps narcissists even – who might not always have been right but were nonetheless never wrong. And so the context had to shift constantly to justify their at times outlandish, even actionable, behavior, failings and lack of Alexandrian leadership – which in turn lead to a diminishment of the company right out of “The Magnificent Ambersons.” This meant that the Powers That Be required fresh villains (that is, scapegoats) daily.
I was reminded of this in mulling President Donald J. Trump’s losing end of summer game – one in which he has typically not played well with others. First, there was the coup de grace delivered by Sen. John McCain’s bipartisan funeral in which the wily old soldier strategized the event to have literally the last word. Then there was the not-so-subtle smackdown by McCain’s Antigone of a daughter, Meghan. In a stirring eulogy that was reminiscent in its fire and discomfort for certain attendees of Charles, Earl Spencer’s eulogy for his sister Diana, Princess of Wales, the younger McCain denounced “cheap political rhetoric” and the absurdity of making America great again when it already was great. (It really has been the spring and summer of the Meghans, hasn’t it – first Markle and now McCain.)
This was followed by Bob Woodward’s new White House tell-all, “Fear,” which was released – deliberately, booksellers told me – on 9/11. And hot on advance word of the book, as if to corroborate its contents and prove there are no accidents in this life, came an unprecedented anonymous op-ed piece in The New York Times by a White House senior official who is actively working with others to save Trumpet – and our world – from his worst impulses.
El Presidente reacted in the manner you might expect of someone with his Lincolnesque, Hemingwayesque abilities – not. He saw treason everywhere and dispatched favorite whipping boy, Attorney General Jeff Sessions – who has gotten what he so richly deserves in signing up for this dance with the devil – to root out Anonymous. (Wonder what Don Donaldo now has to say about once faithful capo Paul “Paulie Smart Suits” Manafort “flipping” to Robert Mueller?) Tellingly, Trump did not decry what Anonymous said as fake news, only that s/he said it “gutlessly,” without a name attached. Fair enough. But what this says is that Trump knows that there are people working against him within his own house. He just doesn’t know who they are. Perhaps he also knows in his heart of tiniest hearts that they are disloyal, because he is loyal to no one but himself. I doubt it, though.
For someone who is so self-centered, he has no self-awareness, the paradox of narcissism. (I hesitate to use the term, because it is a clinical one and I’m no psychiatrist. Yet how else can you describe someone who would deny the deaths of 3,000 people in Puerto Rico, because he feels aggrieved?
Not that this is going to matter to his camp followers. I sometimes think they’re as narcissistic as their idol. How else to explain their behavior? As long as they’re getting what they want, to hell with the rest of us.
The White House staff, then, finds itself in the situation I and my colleagues were in: How do you cope with a narcissistic boss?
There are three basic strategies – none of them perfect and all of which carry risks.
First, you can do what McCain did and challenge the narcissist head-on. But he knew he was dying and had nothing to lose so he figured he might as well go out in a blaze of glory, defending the republic. This is a take-one-for-the-team exit strategy only. If you chose this, be prepared to walk away. (See also James Comey.) It can, however, be an effective strategy if employed selectively but only in combination with the third approach, which we’ll discuss in a moment.
Secondly, you can go all in and kiss up-kick down. This is what my mediocre middle managers did in their slavish devotion to the equally mediocre higher-ups while often working me to death and, in some cases, verbally and sexually abusing colleagues. Kiss up-kick down is the approach White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has chosen. Whatever Trump says or does, she touts the company line. Meanwhile, her demeanor toward the press is mean-spirited and unprofessional. This strategy may work for a while, but when the boss falls – and, as French President Emanuel Macron noted regarding Trump, “Nobody is forever” – those you bullied to curry favor will turn on you like a pack of jackals.
The third strategy is the trickiest and most dangerous of all, for it requires you to do what Anonymous and many of the people in “Fear” are doing – pay lip service to the boss, carrying out his orders when they make sense but subverting/ignoring other dangerous commands or, more likely, recasting them so that they serve the greater good, including yourself. This is ultimately the tactic I took with my bosses. I did what they wanted since they weren’t asking me to do anything illegal and/or immoral. But I never sucked up to them. And I exploited my job for every cent, connection and perk it was worth, the largess from which I bestowed on others. That was how I made meaning out of my unhappiness.
It is right for former President Barack Obama to say – and how good is it to have him back – that inside resistance is not the way democracy works. Of course. We must go to the polls and vote for change. Take to the streets. Sign petitions. Volunteer. But with all due respect to Obama, a workplace is not a democracy. It is a tyranny of one.
Anonymous could grandstand, pen op-ed pieces under his or her own name and resign. But someone else would take the job, someone perhaps more consonant with the president’s worst instincts, and we’d still be in the same situation, perhaps even worse off.
Sorry as I am to say it, the time for Obama’s pure idealism is over and the time for pragmatic opportunism has begun. The third way is not without its risks. You could be found out and branded a double agent. And you risk being labeled a collaborator and fence-sitter.
But if you play your cards right, you can not only survive but thrive and occasionally pick your battles so you can meet the narcissist head-on when it matters most. And, if nothing else, this approach buys you time – the narcissist’s true enemy – to find worthy allies (as White House insiders have done with the press and, I’m sure, the intelligence community) and plot your next move – which, I pray, is to a better life.
Tags: narcissism, coping with narcissism, Donald J. Trump, Puerto Rican hurricane deaths, Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico, John McCain, McCain funeral, Meghan McCain, Meghan Markle, James Comey, Jeff Sessions, Anonymous, anonymous New York Times op-ed, “Fear,” Bob Woodward, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Emmanuel Macron, Barack Obama, Jane Austen,