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'Thank You for Your Servitude' casts harsh light on GOP's shift and its motives

Penguin Press

The nation's readers may not be crying out for yet another book about former President Trump and his era, but many will make an exception for a book by Mark Leibovich.

That is why Thank You for Your Servitude: Donald Trump's Washington and the Price of Submission will likely find a place alongside all those other tomes trashing all things Trump.

People remember Leibovich's earlier take on the nation's capital — This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral - Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking! - in America's Gilded Capital -- which topped The New York Times bestseller list for three months in 2013. Critics at the time spoke of too much snark and gossip, but the book was also widely praised for exposing the incestuous, meretricious power elite of Washington.

An added selling point for some is that this time the acerbic Leibovich trains his fire on one party — Trump's Republicans. This Town was about the first five years of the Barack Obama phenomenon in America. Republicans abound in that book, too, but Democrats and their media favorites were arguably its first focus.

By contrast, the cover of Thank You for Your Servitude features cartoon caricatures of Trump staffers, prominent Republicans, conservative media personalities and a recognizable January 6 rioter with buffalo horns on his head. There is not a Democrat in sight.

If it is possible to set partisanship aside in these tribal times, the main attraction to Leibovich's work is his wicked satirical talent. He comes at his interviewees with a skewer in one hand, a scalpel in the other and a glint in his eye. His frequent eviscerations of major figures range from subtle to scabrous.

Two pages into the new book's prologue, the author refers to "Trump's usual collection of pet rocks" mentioning as examples Rudy Giuliani and former campaign strategists Steve Bannon and Corey Lewandowksi. (Elsewhere, Giuliani will be described as "the master creature of the Trump swamp.")

In the same paragraph, Leibovich refers to "Trump leg-humpers from the House" (meaning the U.S. House of Representatives) and dismisses Trump's best-known spokespersons as "C-listers bumped up temporarily to B-list status by their proximity" to the president.

Hanging out in the lobby

The framing image for Thank You is not the White House but the lobby of the Trump Hotel, the true citadel of the Trump administration a few blocks away down Pennsylvania Avenue. The scene is regularly crowded with acolytes of varying status, all anticipating a chance to see Trump and be seen by him and by others waiting to see him. Leibovich slips onstage with these characters, off to one side, usually with other reporters such as his colleagues from The New York Times, where he worked before joining The Atlantic as a staff writer.

The lobby scenes allow Leibovich to introduce (and often lampoon) various figures from the first seven years of the Trump era (which he properly dates from the candidate's storied descent down a golden escalator in Trump Tower in 2015).

But the material in Thank You is new, much of it from interviews done since the 2020 election. Leibovich gives us the essence of his own interview with Trump early in his term, an apparently brief tete-a-tete in the dining room off the Oval Office, arranged by Trump aide Hope Hicks.

He also shares a moment from an interview on the Trump campaign plane in 2016, when he interrupts Trump watching TV to ask him about expressing empathy. Trump, his face remaining "still and distant as though it were coated in plastic," says that, as president, the quality of empathy "would be one of the most important things about Trump."

Continuing the quote, Leibovich records the future president saying: "When I'm in that position, when we have horrible hurricanes, all kinds of horrible things happen, you've got to have empathy."

To which the author adds: "Trump then returned to watching himself on the small screen."

If Leibovich can be occasionally brutal in his assessments, Trump brings out the worst: "Trump has a way of wearing you down," the author observes. "He invades your habitat, like the opossum that gets into the attic, dies, stinks and attracts derivative nuisances."

But while Trump remains an eminence throughout, the author's true subject here is Trump's stable of enablers and the transformation they have wrought on their party and themselves.

Leibovich dutifully walks us back through the major incidents of Trump's time in office — the controversy over his Inauguration Day crowd, the firing of FBI Director James Comey, the Russian interference probe, the impeachment over his "perfect phone call" to the leader of Ukraine, the street protests following the murder of George Floyd and the notorious clearing of Lafayette Square to facilitate Trump's Bible-dangling photo op.

We also see the highlights, if that is the word, of the 2020 election campaign and election night, including the notorious and spurious claim of victory. Along the way, we meet Joe Biden, whose unique path to the nomination (fourth in the Iowa caucuses, fifth in New Hampshire) reaches a high point in his first debate with Trump. As he is being repeatedly interrupted by the president, Biden closes his eyes and says "Will you shut up, man?" Leibovich appropriates this rhetorical question as a national cris de coeur and at least a partial explanation for Trump's defeat in 2020: He had worn people out.

The author also catalogs, mostly in passing, the legislative milestones of the term, the struggle to repeal Obamacare, the tax cut bill, the showdown over the Mexican wall that closed government for five weeks in 2019 and even the confirmation of three Supreme Court justices. These are scenery along the way, as Leibovich keeps his attention on the personalities.

It is not as though he does not know how much these substantive debates mattered, he clearly does. But his particular contribution is to bring to life some of the characters who enlivened those debates.

A gallery of miniatures

Leibovich made his reputation writing profiles at The Washington Post and then at The New York Times, where he was the national political correspondent for the Sunday magazine. He published a collection of these years ago, but Thank You offers fresh evidence of his forte. He guides us through a portrait gallery of those who have mattered in Trump's remastered GOP. These are not full-length profiles but miniature character studies, or in some cases lack-of-character studies.

Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader in the House, seems to have given the author repeated interviews but struggles with his questions. "Why do you keep asking about Trump?" he asks him. "Why do you keep asking about January 6th?" In an unguarded moment, McCarthy mentions the need to "keep Trump in the party," an imperative shared at times by other prominent Republicans. The party's national chair, Ronna McDaniel, has gone to great lengths to forestall the formation of a Trump-led third party that many regard as an existential threat.

Leibovich also peers over at McCarthy's Senate counterpart, Mitch McConnell, quite often. But when he chases down the Senate GOP leader he usually winds up watching while the Kentuckian does another of his silent "Zombie walks," disappearing down a Capitol hallway without acknowledging the repeated questions.

Other senators prove more than willing to talk to Leibovich, apparently less worried about being hoist on his petard. Chief among these is Lindsey Graham, the South Carolinian who more than anyone personifies the Republican shift in ethos and attitude toward Trump.

In 2015, Graham called Trump a kook, "crazy" and "a race-baiting xenophobic bigot" who was "unfit for office." But he turned quickly when Trump became The Man, soon finding a place in the warmth of Trump's sun.

"When I talked to the people in Pakistan they know I'm close to the president and that I'm going to be able to report back to him," Graham tells Leibovich. "I've never had that kind of influence before. To me, it's exciting" — and also gratifying to the primary voters back home.

Graham responds to a blunt question about his conversion to "presidential confidant" by saying "If you know anything about me, it'd be odd not to do this...to try to be relevant."

Graham's willingness to engage with the author is unusual among his party colleagues. But it does not earn him much leeway with Leibovich, who uses the South Carolinian's boyhood nickname ("Stinkball") as his chapter title in Thank You.

"Graham's Senate colleagues described him as a kind of sitcom sidekick with a knack for finding himself in sad-sack situations," Leibovich writes.

Erstwhile rivals take a knee

Others who ran against Trump in 2016 but failed to resist or to distance themselves when he seized the nomination also come in for rough treatment. Leibovich gives us the juicy quotes from each before recounting their remarkable conversions. Thus Marco Rubio, the senator from Florida, is seen flogging his Trump credentials despite his historic humiliation at the hands of candidate Trump.

"I couldn't help contemplating Rubio's sad slide into slavish devotion to someone he previously called 'the most vulgar person to ever aspire to the presidency'," writes Leibovich, summing up how the Florida senator Trump had derided as "Liddle Markoe" on Twitter had transfigured himself as "a fully co-opted minion."

We get similar glimpses of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and even former Rep. Mike Pompeo of Kansas, who was Trump's second secretary of state. All are said to be "in on the joke," a phrase some of Leibovich's interviewees use on the record and others only off.

Adam Kinzinger, the Illinois Republican now famous for his role on the January 6th investigation committee, puts it this way to the author:

"For all but a handful of members, if you put them on truth serum, they knew the election was fully legitimate and Donald Trump was a joke. The vast majority of people get the joke. I think Kevin McCarthy gets the joke. Lindsey gets the joke. The problem is that the joke isn't even funny anymore."

The joke as a metaphor image recurs often in Thank You. It seems to explain the double-think practiced by so many the author expects to know better.

The point of the joke is that all know what they really think but act otherwise because it serves their own purposes to do so — and preserves the GOP from the challenge of a Trump-led third party.

This is a message to be found in the descriptions of Trump's purported acolytes and his critics as well. Leibovich serves up generous helpings of garment-rending Republicans who dared to cross The Man, including former Speaker Paul Ryan and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Florida Rep. Tom Rooney. There are also sympathetic interludes with Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, the only GOP senator who voted to impeach Trump twice, and even with Maine Sen. Susan Collins, with whom Leibovich admits sharing an affinity for the rural interior of her state.

Getting darker

Near the end of Thank You, Leibovich shifts the emphasis in his title. Having ridiculed Republicans for their servitude to Trump he raises the darker implications of the term submission. He speaks of the GOP paying the price for letting their party be defined by the dictates of Trump and his rally crowds.

What is the price? Is it eventual rejection by ever greater numbers of voters? That in itself might be too much to ask of a political party, but Leibovich makes clear he is talking about something else, something larger looming in the immediate future.

He strongly suggests that what was once the party of Abraham Lincoln is now willing to do and believe in anything to maintain its hold on power — whether it involves utter fealty to Donald Trump or a similar embrace of one of the figures now maneuvering to be his successor.

Leibovich quotes Liz Cheney, the Republican of Wyoming who has been the leading Republican voice on the January 6th panel, saying "We've got people entrusted with the preservation of the Republic who don't know what the rule of law is."

That, Leibovich adds, is the ultimate price of submission.

In This Town, Leibovich expressed a kind of non-partisan revulsion at the degree to which careerism and money drive Washington. In Thank You, his attitude is less arch, and more than angry. He has a more singular focus. And much of it seems to stem from what transpired on January 6th.

"As more came to light about what Trump was willing and trying to do, and how close the country truly came to the precipice, Republicans seemed to become only more and more determined to forget, ignore and cover up on behalf of the former president, while simultaneously trying to rehabilitate him," he writes.

That is why Thank You should not be mistaken for a "fun read" — as This Town was often described. Leibovich's earlier work was often sharply critical and belittling, but Thank You is on another plane of warning and foreboding. There are many laughs, to be sure, but with bitter aftertaste. And the message here, the final word, is anything but fun.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.