Who will temper Trump after he takes office?
© Getty Images

In ancient Rome, generals returning home after a military victory participated in extravagant parades called triumphs. Adorned in gold and slathered in ox blood, they rode past adoring throngs to the temple of Jupiter, showcasing the human and material spoils of war and basking in near-divinity.

But lest these generals become infected with hubris, a slave was assigned to sit behind them and repeatedly intone, “remember, you are only a man.”

Even in the most depraved chapters of western civilization, leaders have kept a “memento mori,” (literally, a “reminder of death”) — someone or something close by to remind them of the limits of their power.

With the inauguration of a man who has made self-aggrandizement a business model fast approaching, an important question lingers: Who, if anyone, will serve as Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Democrat slams Donald Trump Jr. for ‘serious case of amnesia’ after testimony Skier Lindsey Vonn: I don’t want to represent Trump at Olympics Poll: 4 in 10 Republicans think senior Trump advisers had improper dealings with Russia MORE’s “memento mori”?

ADVERTISEMENT
No matter how altruistic the candidate, the decision to run for the job of leader of the free world is fueled, at least in part, by a massive ego. Perhaps cognizant of this fact, and the dangers that come with it, many American presidents have prudently included critics in their inner circles.

 

Abraham Lincoln famously appointed three former political rivals to key Cabinet positions despite a contentious Republican presidential primary, as Doris Kearns Goodwin detailed in her book, and he frequently pitted them against one another in an effort to achieve the best policy outcome.

President Obama, who sought to assemble his own Cabinet in the fashion of Lincoln, selected Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGrassley blasts Democrats over unwillingness to probe Clinton GOP lawmakers cite new allegations of political bias in FBI Top intel Dem: Trump Jr. refused to answer questions about Trump Tower discussions with father MORE as his first secretary of State, despite a bitterly fought primary and clashing approaches to foreign policy. He later appointed Republican Chuck HagelCharles (Chuck) Timothy HagelPentagon documents hundreds of serious misconduct cases against top brass Obama defense sec: Trump's treatment of Gold Star families 'sickens' me The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE as secretary of Defense, and former Procter & Gamble CEO and Republican donor Robert McDonald to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs — a pick some Republicans are urging Trump to keep in place.

For other presidents, such as Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, religion replaced advisers as a memento mori. After surviving an assassination attempt, Reagan wrote in his diary that he could not ask God for help without forgiving the man who shot him, for all of God’s children were equally loved. Carter described in his memoir how his Christian faith pushed him to constantly try to identify with homeless people, drug addicts and destitute families, an exercise that he thought ennobled him and his constituents.

With a few notable exceptions, Trump has filled his inner circle with relatives and political elites who have defended him unconditionally. When the billionaire has tapped critics and rivals for service, he has tended toward people who agree with him on policy.

Rick Perry, who had called Trump a “cancer on conservatism” and once vowed to abolish the agency he’s now been picked to lead — the Department of Energy — hardly diverges from Trump on the issues. The same goes for Nikki Haley, Trump’s pick for ambassador to the United Nations, who said she voted for Trump as a matter of policy.

Ben Carson, Trump’s former primary opponent who was picked to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development, was one of the first Republican candidates to throw his support behind Trump’s bid after ending his own campaign. It is reasonable to assume he will continue to loyally advocate for the president-elect’s policy agenda.

Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, recently named counselor to the president, may be the most likely person to have a grounding influence on Trump, as she was effective in her efforts to temper his antagonistic tendencies during a crucial month late in the campaign.

But Conway’s progress was short-lived. Trump continues to tweet belligerently and engage in petty quarrels, at best dismissing opportunities to garner positive press coverage, and at worst inviting national security threats.

So the question remains: Who or what will protect him from his worst self?

 

Lauren Wright, Ph.D., is a political scientist, a White House expert and board member of the White House Transition Project. She also is the author of the recently released “On Behalf of the President: Presidential Spouses and White House Communications Strategy Today,” which identifies and explains the expanding responsibility entrusted to presidential spouses to communicate the president's message on the campaign trail and in the White House.


The views of Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.