Review: “Thank You for Your Servitude,” by Mark Leibovich

THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVITUDE: Donald Trump’s Washington and the Price of Submissionby Mark Leibovich

In June 2017, the New York Times chief national correspondent Mark Leibovich visited the White House and was unexpectedly ushered into the Oval Office, where he found President Donald Trump watching (what else?) “Fox & Friends.” Trump issued a perfunctory denunciation of Leibovich’s then-employer and launched into his familiar litany of grievances and obsessions. “I had heard this all before,” Leibovich reflected later, “and was ready for it to end after about two minutes.”

The problem that Leibovich (now a staff writer at The Atlantic) faced in interpreting Trump-era politics was that its lead figure was so monotonous and monomaniacal (albeit dangerous and deranged) that the author couldn’t repeat the formula he used to such entertaining effect in his 2013 book, “This Town,” which profiled the Washington insiders and A-listers circling around the Obama White House. Instead, Leibovich’s new book ingeniously shifts the focus to the Trump International Hotel, the president’s “flagship payola palace” that operated from 2016 to 2022 just a few blocks from the White House.

Through its glittering atrium lounge passed the Republican Party’s major politicians, leaders, fixers and influence-peddlers — “the careerists who capitulated to Trumpism to preserve their livelihoods,” as Leibovich puts it. It was the critical venue for Trumpian deal-making and social climbing, and hosted some of the plotting sessions that led to the Charlottesville white supremacist rally, the Jan. 6 insurrection and both of Trump’s impeachments. The hotel was the Trumpian version of the Washington “swamp.”

“Thank You for Your Servitude” concentrates less on the MAGA true believers — the likes of Steve Bannon and Marjorie Taylor Greene — than on the twisted and tormented souls in the Republican establishment who could have prevented Trump’s hostile takeover of the party but didn’t . Such Republicans, in Leibovich’s assessment, “made Trump possible” and they “refused to stop him even after the US Capitol fell under the control of some madman in a Viking hat. It was always rationalization followed by capitulation and then full surrender. The routine was always numbingly the same, and so was the sad truth at the heart of it: They all knew better.”

So why did they go along? The usual Washington factors of greed, ambition and opportunism, for starters. Kevin McCarthy, who unwisely spoke to Leibovich at length and with considerable candor, made clear he would endure any humiliation at Trump’s hands and sacrifice any principle in the pursuit of becoming House speaker. “Once McCarthy wins,” in Leibovich’s view, “nothing else matters: He will have made it.” Senator Lindsey Graham turned from Trump critic to lapdog out of a desire “to try to be relevant,” he told Leibovich, as well as a pragmatic understanding that his re-election depended upon Trump’s blessing and his base. Others submitted out of both fear and fascination; Leibovich notes the mystique that Trump, as “a pure and feral rascal,” held for rule-bound, easily shamed politicians.

“Thank You for Your Servitude” is extremely funny in spots, although much of the humor has a whistling-past-the-graveyard quality. Like the Comedian in Alan Moore’s graphic novel “Watchmen,” Leibovich was shocked out of his previous cynicism and absurdism (to some extent at least) by the enormity of Trump’s threat. Unlike “This Town,” Leibovich’s new account has heroes: Liz Cheney, Mitt Romney and the late Senator John McCain. McCain’s courage and integrity in standing up to Trump posed a stark contrast to what Leibovich calls “everything the White House and its saps and weaklings had become under the 45th president.”

Geoffrey Kabaservice is the vice president of political studies at the Niskanen Center and the author of “Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party.”

THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVITUDE: Donald Trump’s Washington and the Price of Submission, by Mark Leibovich | 352 pp. | Penguin Press | $29

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