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The Achilles’ Heel of the Rich and Powerful 
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The Achilles’ Heel of the Rich and Powerful 

Donald Trump's valet problem.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate is seen on June 8, 2023 in Palm Beach, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Of course, Donald Trump has a valet problem. How could it be otherwise?

As Hunter S. Thompson observed in a different Palm Beach-related scandal many years ago—the infamous Pulitzer divorce case—“The servant problem is the Achilles’ heel of the rich. That is the weak reed, a cruel and incurable problem the rich have never solved—how to live in peace with the servants. Sooner or later, the maid has to come in the bedroom, and if you’re only paying her $150 a week, she is going to come in hungry, or at least curious, and the time is long past when it was legal to cut their tongues out to keep them from talking.”

The people with whom Trump surrounds himself are … not the “best people,” as he promised. (But if you are surprised that Trump has failed to keep a promise, you should have asked Mrs. Trump, or Mrs. Trump, or Mrs. Trump, for that matter, or maybe Stormy Daniels.) The list is one that a novelist would blush to invent: Mike Pence, the pious fraud who did Trump’s bidding right up until the moment doing so stopped serving his interests and now presents himself as the second coming of St. Francis; Rudy Giuliani, the knee-walking grifter who still remembers enough law that he already has stipulated the falsehood of his stolen-election nonsense—that swill is fine for the slavering proles in the Fox News audience, but even Giuliani wouldn’t try to defend it in court; Roger Stone, literally the kind of cuckold he likes to accuse others of being metaphorically; etc. And now Trump’s valet, Walt Nauta, is facing the prospect of time in a federal penitentiary after what reports describe as a truly clownish cloak-and-dagger affair involving “shush” emojis, sneaking through the hedges at Mar-a-Lago, and roping another minion into a scheme to destroy evidence when he did not have the technical chops to get the job done himself. These putzes make the White House Plumbers of Watergate infamy look like the Count of Monte Cristo crossed with Professor Moriarty. Criminal masterminds, they ain’t. 

Miles Taylor, former chief of staff at Homeland Security, recently told a podcast that part of his job was dumbing down security briefings for the “incandescently stupid” president. 

This fifty-page memo that we would normally give to any other president about what his options are is something Trump literally can’t read. … And so I had to write this incandescently stupid memo called something like, “Afghanistan, How to Put America First and Win.” And then bullet by bullet, I summed up this highly classified memo into Trump’s sort of bombastic language because it was the only way he was gonna understand. I mean, I literally said in there, “You know, if we leave Afghanistan too fast, the terrorists will call us losers. But if we wanna be seen as winners, we need to make sure the Afghan forces have the strength to push back against these criminals.” I mean, it was that dumb and that’s how you had to talk to him.

Some of you will know Taylor as “Anonymous,” author of a famous New York Times essay. He eventually quit the administration (when it was more convenient for him to do so), but do you know what he didn’t do? He didn’t say, “Mr. President, you are not smart enough to have this job, and you can’t even read a proper briefing. One of us has to go, and I imagine it will be me, but this needed to be said.” Now, this was a guy who plainly loathes Trump and what Trump stands for, and he stuck it out through what must have been some pretty humiliating service (one does get the feeling that he is getting the word out about that idiotic memo before someone else draws attention to it), and, that being the case, how likely do you think it is that somebody who wants to serve in the Trump administration—somebody who, for whatever perverse reason, admires the man and his moronically vicious/viciously moronic style of politics—is going to set him straight about anything? I have friends and colleagues who served in the administration in senior roles, and they typically defend that decision (assuming they haven’t gone all-in on Trump cultism) in terms of damage control, making the best out of a bad situation, giving good advice to the bumbling amateur in the Oval Office and the collection of miscreants, subordinate con-men, and incompetents surrounding him. But actually standing up to the guy? No, as far as I can tell, none of them ever did that. 

To a man like Trump, everybody is a servant. Even his current wife is, in effect, a former employee, having been part of the Trump Model Management stable before her marriage to the man with his name on the door. That’s one of the reasons Trump has such a hard time getting—and keeping—good help. Rex Tillerson wasn’t the secretary of state—he was just another valet, one of many. He knew what Trump was—“a f—–g moron,” in his own words—but he took the job. Some people in Trump’s orbit are happy to be treated as servants—there was never such a servile creature as Sean Hannity—but that isn’t how you get first-rate Cabinet secretaries, agency heads, or generals. One of the reasons for Trump’s failure as a president—and one of the reasons for his current legal troubles—is that anybody around him who had the brains and the guts to say, “Hey, dummy, you can’t do that!” got fired before he could explain things to the game-show host with whom the people of this country entrusted the nuclear codes for four long years. 

And that is why my money is on the actual valet to be Trump’s undoing. Trump is too cheap to buy the loyalty of a servant (he will only rent it) and he isn’t really the kind of goon he aspires to be—he inspires more contempt and pity than genuine fear. 

But you’ll notice that every time he fired some uppity underling who wasn’t with the program, four more popped up begging for the job. Sure, they are reliably incompetent, dishonest, and morally repugnant, but there are a lot of them, and the servile temperament is simply born into some people. As Hunter Thompson once wrote of the denizens of the grimy edges of Palm Beach: “These are servants and suckfish, and they don’t really matter in the real Palm Beach, except when they have to testify.”

Economics for English Majors

In a column about congestion pricing in New York City, Paul Krugman of the New York Times writes: “Now, nobody is suggesting a ban on driving into Manhattan.” When you read in the Times that “nobody is suggesting x,” then you can be sure that progressives are on the verge of proposing that we mandate x. It took about five minutes to go from “nobody is talking about gay marriage” to “bake that gay-wedding cake, peon, or we’ll seize your assets.” 

In fact, people have been talking about a ban on driving in Manhattan since Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House. “We propose the banning of all cars from Manhattan Island, except buses, small taxis, vehicles for essential services (doctor, police, sanitation, vans, etc.), and the trucking used in light industry,” Dissent magazine wrote way back in 1961. Professor Krugman’s Times colleague Fahrad Manjoo has suggested banning private cars from Manhattan. Manjoo was inspired by the Practice for Architecture and Urbanism’s proposal, forthrightly described as “banning private cars from Manhattan.” There’s more: “It’s time to ban cars from Manhattan,” James Nevius writes in Curbed. The Guardian has considered the question sympathetically, as has Business Insider, commentators you can read at Y Combinator and Reddit, Crain’s, etc. I suppose it is possible that all of these are nobodies in Professor Krugman’s estimate, but, from my point of view, it looks like a whole lot of nobodies are suggesting a ban on driving into Manhattan.

Professor Krugman advocates a less radical path, adding a fee and letting people respond to economic incentives. 

Is either proposal a good policy? 

Professor Krugman, who used to be a first-rate economist before he became a third-rate newspaper columnist, touches on the economic questions only lightly, instead throwing the red meat that readers have come to expect of the Times’s op-ed pages, arguing that the soundness of the policy is so strongly endorsed by the experts that the only explanation for its not being implemented is “sabotage” on the part of affluent suburbanites Times readers should hate. New York Times class warfare is a very funny kind of class warfare—class warfare sponsored by Cartier!—but, there you have it:

Might a congestion charge have some undesirable side effects, like increased truck traffic in the Bronx? Policies always do — but given the sheer size of the costs one inflicts by driving into Manhattan, it’s inconceivable that these would undermine the basic case. Should New Jersey be getting some revenue from the fees? Maybe, although hundreds of thousands of New Jersey residents commute into New York by train or bus, and these commuters would gain from reduced congestion after they arrive.

What’s really striking is how few people stand to benefit from New Jersey’s attempt to block or delay congestion charges. Fewer than 60,000 New Jersey residents, out of a state labor force of almost five million, commute into New York City by car. They are also, as it happens, relatively affluent, with a median annual income of more than $100,000, relatively well able to handle the extra cost. For this, New Jersey is trying to sabotage crucial policy in a neighboring state?

Truck traffic in the Bronx is a real issue—it already is a real issue and has been for a long time, and it is becoming more of an issue every day as people of the sort who subscribe to the New York Times move into shiny new buildings in Manhattan-adjacent Bronx neighborhoods such as Mott Haven. Also, the Bronx is a place where real people live and work—the toll scheme would function, at least in part, as a pollution-transfer plan, sparing the city’s central business district while dumping the externalities on outlying areas. Assuming that these outer-borough types matter in the great human calculus as much as the ones who reside in Manhattan do and given that the effects on their neighborhoods is unknown at this time, scarcely having entered into the thinking of such commentators as Professor Krugman, it is not precisely “inconceivable that these would undermine the basic case” for a congestion fee. If we are interested in the long-term health of the city, then we probably should consider the fact that most of the fastest-growing neighborhoods in New York are outside of Manhattan. 

Congestion fees—and outright prohibitions on private vehicles—are policies that have been implemented with limited success in some very specific contexts. London is one of the most famous cases. Its congestion fee does seem to have reduced traffic by about10 percent—though the exact size of the effect remains hotly contested—while unintended consequences (including reduced sales at some London department stores, for example) have been significant. The original program was going to—all together now!—“pay for itself,” with the collections farmed out to a contractor that would turn a profit on the system, sharing some of the proceeds with the city of London. That failed in more or less the way you would expect, and now the system is run on a nonprofit basis and run pretty poorly, with about 26 percent of congestion charges going uncollected and rampant fraud. It does produce a dividend, but a modest one. Are we all sure New York City will do much better, because it is so famous worldwide for the excellence of its municipal administration? More successful models can be found in the places you would expect it: Singapore, which has used congestion pricing since the 1970s, and Stockholm, where the usual Swedish bureaucratic competency keeps things orderly. 

(I like to imagine how the domestic politics would play in in New York’s version: No congestion charge if you are driving in to get an abortion, but you’ll pay double if you work at an investment bank—and if you are a “BIPOC pangender person” New York probably will end up paying you to drive down Lexington Avenue.)

There are other things New York City and its partners in the region could do to make other forms of transportation more attractive: For example, a mass-transit system in which riders were more likely to arrive on time and less likely to be murdered or rat-bit would probably do wonders. Indeed, the cynic in me thinks of these proposals as a means of punishing people who have noticed how badly the powers that be in New York and environs have run things, in particular those who have responded by taking matters—and the steering wheel—into their own hands. That’s a pattern: The conventional public schools fail, so declare war on charters, private schools, homeschoolers, etc; the police and prosecutors won’t do their jobs, so blame gun shops and the law-abiding people who shop there; etc. Fixing transit in and around New York City is a political nightmare, because it involves many different agencies (the imbeciles who run the Long Island Railroad and Metro North are not the same imbeciles who run the subways) and jurisdictions and rivalrous political and economic incentives: The people who run Stamford, Connecticut, would rather be the place where the banks are located than the place where young bankers get on the train to go to work, and the worse things get on Metro North, the better the case for doing business in Stamford or Greenwich or wherever. I am not suggesting that the town fathers across Connecticut are engaged in “sabotage,” to use Professor Krugman’s overwrought word, but surely the tradeoffs in play affect how they calculate their priorities. 

If you want fewer cars on the street, then, by all means, make it more expensive to put cars on the street. (And if you want fewer people to save and invest, raise taxes on savings and investment. And if you want to reduce the value of work, raise taxes on work income. Etc.) If it doesn’t reduce traffic, then your fee wasn’t high enough. You could put a 5,000 percent tax on parking, if you wanted to. Or you could do what “nobody is talking about” doing, and prohibit cars from the places you don’t want cars.  

But if you want to make life in New York radically better, fix the dang trains. It’s a tough one to take on. That’s why I always hope one of these so-called New Right creeps will get into local and state government—you want to be Mussolini, let’s first see if you can make the trains run on time. 

Elsewhere, in the Financial Press … 

Everything you ever wanted to know about sex from … the Wall Street Journal. It isn’t as weird as it sounds. But if the Financial Times comes out with a dating app …

Words About Words

Yuval Levin has wise things to say about revolutions. And, more to our purpose here, he knows what the word “enormity” means, which is something evil, not something enormous

There were some Americans who thought the same, at least in the early stages of the French Revolution. One of them was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, so his view certainly has to be taken seriously. But it’s worth seeing that for all of his zeal for the French Revolution while it was happening, Thomas Jefferson concluded late in his life, after seeing what became of the Revolution, that it had gone too far, and that if the king and the people had reached an arrangement more like the moderate American regime (or even like the limited monarchy of the British), they could have averted “those enormities which demoralised the nations of the world, and destroyed, and is yet to destroy millions and millions of its inhabitants.”

Those enormities were a function of the unbounded radicalism of the revolution itself, and of the fact that they then led to military dictatorship and the Napoleonic wars. This was not where the American Revolution pointed, because while the American Revolution sought to ground political life in the core and fundamental truth that we are all equal under God, it did not take this truth to require a politics of radical disjuncture.

In Other Wordiness … 

Professor Krugman talks about “sabotage.” But spare a thought for “cabotage.” You will not find a more amusing explanation. 

Burning Bright … 

In British-y Englishness, this bit from the BBC about the latest indictments of Donald Trump gave me an interesting mental image:

Ahead of Mr Nauta’s arrival, Mr de Oliveira is said to have asked a Mar-a-Lago valet not to tell anyone about the visit because Mr Nauta wanted it to be a secret.

Prosecutors claim that, when Mr Nauta and Mr de Oliveira met that evening, they walked around with a torch and pointed at surveillance cameras in a tunnel near the storage room.

Of course, as the British speak, a torch is a flashlight. 

But it isn’t impossible to imagine these very stable geniuses walking around with the flaming kind of torch. 


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In Closing

She haunted many a low resort
Near the grimy road of Tottenham Court;
She flitted about the No Man’s Land
From The Rising Sun to The Friend at Hand.
And the postman sighed, as he scratched his head:
“You’d really ha’ thought she’d ought to be dead
And who would ever suppose that that
Was Grizabella, the Glamour Cat!”

“Grizabella, the Glamour Cat”
T. S. Eliot

If you listen to people explain why they hated the film adaptation of Cats, in 27 cases out of 30 the answer boils down to the fact that the film is, more or less, Cats, the infamously inscrutable Broadway sensation that made a billion and a half dollars and ran for almost two decades but which does not have much in the way of what you might call a plot. Jennifer Hudson was fine as Grizabella in the film, and she knows how to handle “Memory,” which is to Cats what “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina,” is to Evita—the main reason most people sit through the show at all. As I wrote when the Cats film premiered, Hudson was a sensible choice for the role, but there was a missed casting opportunity for someone who was in many ways—some of them tragic—born to play that role: Sinéad O’Connor. 

O’Connor knew her way around a big Broadway showstopper, as she showed on her recording of “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina.” (Madonna does not fare well in the inevitable comparison between their takes.) The singer Alison Moyet marveled that O’Connor was “as beautiful as any girl around and never traded on that card,” which is, of course, not true. In an era in which REM was making baroque and cinematic miniature films inspired by Gabriel Garcia Marquez stories, O’Connor’s most famous contribution to the music-video genre consisted of a sustained close-up of her face. She knew what she looked like. The famous buzzcut may have been intended as a feminist statement, but it also enhanced her beauty rather than detracting from it. 

O’Connor was a sort of real-life Grizabella, once a great beauty who fell into reduced circumstances, ostracized, lonely, hungry to be once again embraced by her tribe. Grizabella was rejected on moral grounds (the “low resort” of Tottenham Court is an oblique reference to prostitution) that served, at least in part, as a cover for the envy her glamor had once inspired—Sinéad O’Connor certainly knew something about that. 

T. S. Eliot omitted the Grizabella poem from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats on the grounds that it was “too sad for children.” O’Connor lost a 17-year-old son to suicide and attempted to kill herself a dozen times before her death last week. She spent much of the last part of her life making a spectacle of herself, trying on new identities by the month—lesbian, asexual, radical splinter Catholic, Muslim—at one point, she was ordained a priest by a rogue pseudo-Catholic sect and at another point she started going by the Islamic name Shuhada’ Sadaqat.

She was from time to time dinged by stupendously ignorant people because her most famous song, “Nothing Compares 2U,” was Prince’s composition rather than hers. But “Nothing Compares” was as much her song as Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” belonged to Elvis Presley, as did Mike Stoller and Jerry Lieber’s “Hound Dog,” originally written for Big Mama Thornton. (Nobody seems to have cared that Luciano Pavarotti didn’t write his own tunes.) O’Connor’s voice on its own would have been sufficient, but she was a very good writer, too: How many of her contemporaries could boast of anything to compare to “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” “Mandinka,” or “The Last Day of Our Acquaintance”? Her politics were daft, naturally, and occasionally vicious, as in her admiration for the Irish Republican Army. But if you are getting your political views from pop singers, the problem is with you, and even the sustained moral illiteracy of the lyrics cannot spoil “Black Boys on Mopeds”—there are many famous singer-songwriters who never have and never will write anything as fine as that. 

Success, beauty, money, fame, international celebrity, glamor—none of these offers protection against the encroachments of time and loss, the slow and repetitious beatdown of ordinary human sadness. There is a special kind of suffering reserved for beautiful women, in whom the natural effects of age are treated as a degradation. A beautiful woman needs a second act—and you can be sure that the world will do its utmost to deny her that, as though her beauty were the one fixed point in the universe around which her life must revolve, as though there is nothing else for her to be. Sinéad O’Connor from time to time got herself on the right track in her search for shelter in religion and relief in art, but she seemed to need more than these have to offer—of all the addictions to break, celebrity may be the hardest. Performers, like politicians, have a perverse need to be loved by strangers, and while O’Connor was more than resilient enough to face the world’s scorn and outrage, she was not strong enough to endure its indifference. The world moved on, and she could not. 

I imagine she would reject that characterization, perhaps in these words:

He thinks I just became famous
And that’s what messed me up
But he’s wrong.

But the singer isn’t the song, and, in this case, you want to listen to the song even if you must necessarily take the singer as a cautionary example:

Whatever it may bring
I will live by my own policies.
I will sleep with a clear conscience.
I will sleep in peace.

I do hope so. Rest in peace, at last. 

I like to imagine O’Connor being greeted in the afterlife by the sainted Pope John Paul II, who arrived at that far shore no less in need of a Redeemer than she does. They will, I think, have a good deal to talk about. 

Kevin D. Williamson's Headshot

Kevin D. Williamson

Kevin D. Williamson is national correspondent at The Dispatch and is based in Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 15 years as a writer and editor at National Review, worked as the theater critic at the New Criterion, and had a long career in local newspapers. He is also a writer in residence at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. When Kevin is not reporting on the world outside Washington for his Wanderland newsletter, you can find him at the rifle range or reading a book about literally almost anything other than politics.