President Trump's exuberant humiliation of Rex Tillerson
Working for Trump is impossible
It's difficult to imagine how Rex Tillerson might have survived any longer as President Trump's secretary of state.
Tillerson's doom was written in his acceptance. The former president of the Boy Scouts of America, himself a former Eagle Scout, a member of his high-school marching band, an earnest Congregationalist, a proponent of free trade and Common Core, a supporter of Mitt Romney in 2012 and Jeb Bush during the last election, Tillerson was the least representative of all Trump's major Cabinet nominees. Perhaps the only thing, aside from his proven ability to make money on behalf of his employers, that might have endeared the former CEO of Exxon to the president is his longstanding use of a bizarre alias — "Wayne Tracker" — to conduct business correspondence.
A better man than Tillerson would not have lasted longer. It's impossible to serve this administration in any role of significance without surrendering one's dignity. The meanest panderer might, by affecting zeal for the fluctuating enthusiasms of the quasi-imperial personage in the White House, secure for himself a temporary respite from the whispers of other toadies and the unpredictable wrath of Trump himself. Meanwhile the gravest personalities, decorated veterans of the Armed Forces and supposed luminaries of the business world, have succumbed to whatever private madness seems to have infected the White House.
It's a mistake to assume that Tillerson's firing was largely a question of policy. Presidents and their chief diplomats frequently disagree about courses of action, but these disputes are conducted under the dignified mantle of official discretion. The secretary of state cannot speak against his president in a public forum, but the president should not announce sweeping changes without consulting the former. From the first, both men disregarded these established norms of conduct in favor of an endless exchange of spiteful and dismissive remarks. Trump made crude remarks at a Boy Scout camp; Tillerson complained to the press. Trump insisted upon a tenfold increase in America's nuclear arsenal; Tillerson let it be known that he considered his commander in chief "a moron," and Trump challenged him to an IQ test competition.
On numerous occasions the president made a point of publicly contradicting Tillerson, on issues ranging from the official American attitude towards the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar to the efficacy of negotiating with Kim Jong Un, a.k.a., "Little Rocket Man," an issue about which both men seem to have changed their minds. Time and again Tillerson offered to resign, always allowing himself to be dissuaded by Vice President Pence. Meanwhile Tillerson's staff despised the president and his circle. They regretted Trump's withdrawal from the Paris climate accord and his declaration of Jerusalem as Israel's capital city less because they considered them fringe decisions made without regard for the niceties of diplomacy — to which they also seemed indifferent — but because they were undertaken without consulting their chief. To attempt to serve in this administration is to volunteer for a turf war which the president is incapable by definition of losing.
Tillerson will not be the last of the quasi-respectable members of the Cabinet to be fired or to resign under duress. One expects Steven Mnuchin, whose views on trade cannot be far removed from those of outgoing chief economic adviser Gary Cohn, to be forced out of the Treasury. H.R. McMaster's tenure as national security adviser will not last through the year; his likely replacement, John Bolton, has practically been named already. Chief of Staff John Kelly's days are numbered. Secretary of Defense James "Mad Dog" Mattis shares the opinions of Tillerson on, among other things, the state of Iranian compliance with the terms of the nuclear deal. Trump, on the campaign trail and thus far in office, has made a great show of deferring to the wisdom of those military officials to whom he refers invariably as "my generals," but this too will be sacrificed eventually on the altar of his own narcissistic disdain. Even Jeff Sessions, the first politician of any standing to endorse Trump's campaign, will eventually find that he is unable to maintain any semblance of independence from the White House and resign from the Justice Department, something that very nearly happened last year.
Why should we regard these exiles as not only imminent but inevitable? Why is it impossible to conceive of a world in which the president is served for longer than a year or two by even a handful of individuals not regarded as pariahs by the political and media establishments? Trump's administration is haunted by the ghost of Stephen Bannon. The spirit cannot be exorcised. What was conceived in chaos, dedicated to no principle save that of vindictiveness and intrigue for their own sakes, cannot be governed by any maxims of prudence or moderation. Cooler heads, assuming they can still be found, will never prevail. Bannon's departure last summer, as he seems himself to have recognized, was an irrelevance. The White House was his before the inauguration and will remain so until Trump's successor succeeds to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
This, rather than negligence or incompetence, explains why Tillerson learned of his firing from a tweet. It was not, as some have called it, an "unceremonious" dismissal. The president's tweet was a carefully staged, maximally evocative gesture of theatrical cruelty. It was meant to humiliate, and in this aim it seems very much to have succeeded. Meanwhile it will have no significant political consequences. It's a curious thing that on virtually every issue about which Tillerson is said to disagree with the president, with the possible exception of the decision to convene a summit with the leadership of North Korea, the latter enjoys the full support of the Republican establishment, including those who opposed his candidacy.
Trump's long campaign for the presidency was an unceasing exercise in self-indulgent viciousness. Why would we expect his presidency, conducted via Twitter from the seraglios of Mar-a-Lago in between bites of fast-food hamburgers, to be different?