As Anthony “the Mooch” Scaramucci’s overwrought late-night call to New Yorker reporter Ryan Lizza ably demonstrated, those who elbow their way into Donald Trump’s affection are never short of invective nor shy of unleashing it on those they deem enemies.
In laying into (now former) chief of staff Reince Priebus and chief strategist Stephen Bannon, he employed such a lurid combination of profanities and sexually explicit insults, broadcasters covering the story were struggling to find TV-friendly alternatives.
His description of Priebus as a “f***ing paranoid schizophrenic” could have come from the mouth of sweary fictional spin doctor Malcolm Tucker (though Tucker would not have made the mistake of saying it on the record), while his reference to Bannon committing a sexual act will follow the media executive to his grave.
Anyone who imagined Scaramucci’s outburst would play badly for him in the White House has not been paying attention. Although his own verbal dexterity is no match for his director of communications’, Trump is a sucker for all that macho, shoot-from-the-hip vituperation. Even Scaramucci’s threats to kill whoever “leaked” his government financial disclosure form will merely have confirmed him as the kind of player Trump needs to help him “drain the swamp”. His sharp suits, gangster-style nickname, unwavering loyalty, and willingness to engage in bitter, internecine feuding, makes him, for now, the favoured courtier. Thus, far from being castigated for his lack of self-restraint, Scaramucci was rewarded with Priebus’s head on a plate (a fair exchange, I’m sure, for the loss of his wife, who announced she was divorcing him soon after).
In Scaramucci’s expletive-filled rant, there was one insinuation that stood out, not because it was particularly shocking, but because it has become the go-to jibe for anyone who crosses the president or his supporters. In an effort to force Lizza to identify the source of the “leak” (which didn’t exist as the financial disclosures document was released after a public records request) he appealed to him as “an American patriot” to do the right thing.
The right thing, according to Scaramucci, was not to protect his source, as the journalistic code requires, but to hand him over in the interests of “the country” – where “the country” is synonymous with Scaramucci, Trump et al.
Lizza’s refusal to comply (though, given there was no leak, he couldn’t) and his decision to report the details of the phone call, means he is no longer “a patriot” in their eyes.
In the UK the notion of “patriotism” is one that is often regarded with suspicion. Here it is, for many, associated with flag-waving, jingoism and Empire. Dr Samuel Johnson famously called it “the last refuge of a scoundrel,” the acuity of which, Trump has proven time and time again.
In the US, however, describing someone as a “patriot” is seen as a mark of their worth across the political spectrum. When Democrat Nancy Pelosi wanted to pay tribute to John McCain after it emerged he had a brain tumour, it was the P-word she reached for. “SenJohnMcCain is a hero, a patriot and a fighter. I am privileged to call him a friend,” she tweeted.
For Trump and his supporters, patriotism is a fluid concept, which ebbs and flows according to the degree of personal loyalty being expressed at any one time. McCain – who was tortured as a PoW in Vietnam – was “not a war hero” last year when he was speaking out against Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric. He briefly regained “war hero” status when he rose from his sick bed to vote on the pared-down repeal of Obamacare, only to lose it again when it emerged he was siding with the Democrats.
Trump’s newly appointed chief of staff, John F Kelly, – a retired Marines general – is, for now, “a great patriot”. But just because Kelly is a patriot today, doesn’t mean he will be one tomorrow. In Trump-ville, patriotism is subject to presidential whims and fits of pique.
If the word has any objective meaning, however, it must surely be loyalty – not to an individual or an administration – but to the set of values that underpin a nation: in this case, freedom, transparency and the democratic process.
In his pamphlet on the subject, Johnson said: “A patriot is he whose public conduct is regulated by one single motive, the love of his country; who, as an agent in parliament, has, for himself, neither hope nor fear, neither kindness nor resentment, but refers every thing to the common interest.”
Trump spent most of last week demonstrating contempt for American values and the common interest.
On Monday, he tried to turn a Boy Scouts jamboree into something scarily akin to a Hitler Youth rally, whipping the crowd of 12 to 18-year-olds into a frenzy, until they booed Obama.
On Wednesday, he announced transgender people would be barred from serving in any capacity in the military. He did so without consulting Defence Secretary James Mattis, who is in the middle of conducting a review, and without explaining what would happen to the 15,000 transgender people who already serve. Nineteen attorneys general have signed a letter opposing the ban on the grounds it is “undiluted discrimination and therefore indefensible”.
On Friday, he encouraged police officers at Suffolk County Community College in Long Island, New York, to rough up suspects in custody, and was greeted with laughter and applause.
Meanwhile, at the Senate, McCain (along with fellow Republicans Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski) was voting with his conscience against the repeal of Obamacare, causing the bill to fail. He did so, it is said, not because he supported Obamacare, but because he believed the process – the lack of hearings, the one-party, closed-door negotiations etc – was flawed. In short, he put his country, and the values he wants it to embody, before his party or personal advancement.
Here’s one last quote from Johnson. “It is the quality of patriotism to be jealous and watchful, to observe all secret machinations, and to see public dangers at a distance. The true lover of his country is ready to communicate his fears, and to sound the alarm, whenever he perceives the approach of mischief,” he wrote.
Lizza and McCain understand what it means to be patriotic. So too do the attorneys (though as Democrats, their party loyalty is not being tested). All of them are observing secret machinations and sounding the alarm. Here’s hoping they will act as a catalyst for others to do the same.