I wasn’t surprised when the carrier captain was fired. Sure seemed like a hasty, knee-jerk response, but we should be used to that. But I was shocked by the diatribe that Acting Secretary Modly flew 8,000 miles to deliver. I’ve never served in the military so I hesitate to critique military decisions, but leadership is something I do know something about. Such a glaring lack of it startled me.
I'd been moved by the video clips of the crew seeing their Captain off. Apparently Modly was as well. How long does the flight from DC to Guam take? Picture Modly, with his Eraserhead hair, seething that entire time. How dare they! He’d show 'em. Question his decision, do they? His anger simmers. Next to it, his fear. All during the flight, he’s checking his twitter feed. The President backed him up right away, so that was good. But the winds can shift. He needs to show the boss that he’s tough. Not going to put up with insubordination. “Cap-tain, Cro-zier! Cap-tain, Cro-zier!” the sailors chanted as he walked down the gangway. Modly can’t get the sound out of his head.
Trump’s critics often accuse him of actively being behind every loathsome decision, as if he'd called Modly himself and told him to fire that damned captain. He doesn’t need to do that. Once the bus is running and a few high-profile minions have been ground under the wheels, the problems take care of themselves. “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” says Henry. Becket dies. Modly himself told WaPo’s David Ignatius that he was thinking about his predecessor who’d been fired because he “got crossways with the president … I didn’t want that to happen again.”
Survival in Trumpland requires demonstrating unending loyalty to the boss, the ability to anticipate what might set him off, and then take care of it. There’s a little room for missteps because, ironically, Trump actually hates to fire people straight out. He’d rather belittle and insult them. Eventually someone else will pick up the hint.
Trump has many people who are now in “acting” positions (the jokes write themselves). He says he likes “acting.” He doesn’t have to send them to the Senate for confirmation and they’re easier to get rid of when he tires of them. So they’re all dancing on thin ice, anxious to please the audience of one.
The role model is VP Pence, who understands that whatever he’s talking about, every other sentence needs to praise the President. Pence is lucky though; as VP, he doesn’t really have responsibility for anything. The various secretaries and under-secretaries have actual jobs to do, decisions with consequences. You can use pleasing the boss as your lodestar for decision-making, but what happens when you guess wrong?
Poor Modly overreached. He’d probably have kept his job if he’d just stayed home and ridden it out. But he was afraid his decisive firing of the captain might not be enough. That chanting! So he had to go and berate the crew in person. Show Trump just how tough he can be.
Defense Secretary Esper tried to save him by giving him a chance to apologize. And then he mucked that up as well. “I believe, precisely because he [Crozier] is not naive and stupid, that he sent his alarming email with the intention of getting it into the public domain in an effort to draw public attention to the situation on his ship. I apologize for any confusion this choice of words may have caused.” Nobody hearing it was confused.
It was over by then anyway. Trump was backtracking from his initial support. He’d heard good things about Crozier. “So, I'm going to get involved and see what is going on there because I don't want to destroy somebody for having a bad day.” He hates it when he sees somebody being treated badly. He didn’t need to say anything else.