King Donald rewards loyal courtiers — the others are beheaded by tweet

Trump's administration now resembles the "privy chamber" of Henry VIII, where the most obsequious rose to power

By Heather Digby Parton


Published March 30, 2018 8:00AM (EDT)

 (Getty/Nicholas Kamm/Terriana)
(Getty/Nicholas Kamm/Terriana)

Everyone understands by now that President Trump doesn't hire people so much as he casts them. His cabinet has all been chosen the way he chose contestants for "The Apprentice." So when it was reported that he had finally followed through on the rumored firing of the secretary of Veterans Affairs, David Shulkin, and replaced him with the White House doctor, Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson -- on the basis of the press conference where Jackson pronounced the president to be svelte, fit and genetically superior -- it wasn't a surprise. After all, Jackson had delivered quite a performance, without breaking character even once.

It's easy to see why Trump would want to give Jackson a bigger role in the show. He demonstrated real talent for giving Trump administration press conferences. Nonetheless, it is a little weird that the president would "reward" Jackson with the job of running a sprawling and perpetually troubled bureaucracy when he's spent his entire military career as a doctor. Apparently, being an admiral, a doctor and a talented performer tells Trump that the man is capable of anything. After all, he himself is the heir to a fortune who lost millions, turned himself into a celebrity brand name and became president. He is completely unqualified by normal standards and yet he's in the White House. Clearly, "running things" is a snap.

But that doesn't seem to be the only or even the biggest reason why he chose Jackson to head up the VA. The man who trained Jackson, Brig. Gen. Dr. Richard Tubb, said in a letter that the doctor had been attached like "Velcro" to Trump since Inauguration Day. Tubb explained that Jackson’s office is “one of only a very few in the White House Residence proper,” located directly across the hall from the president’s private elevator. He said that "on any given day 'physician's office,' as it is known, is generally the first and last to see the President."

Apparently, this is all perfectly normal. At least it explains why the president would give him a big promotion.  You see, Trump sees himself as more of a beloved monarch than a man of the people:

I’m sitting in an apartment the likes of which nobody’s ever seen. And yet I represent the workers of the world. And they love me and I love them. I think people aspire to do things. And they aspire to watch people. I don’t think they want to see the president carrying his luggage out of Air Force One. And that’s pretty much the way it is.

As Politico pointed out a couple of weeks ago, Trump has been in office for over a year now and he hasn't gone to a baseball game or visited a soup kitchen or dropped in at any local eateries (ones he doesn't own, anyway.)

He has persisted in the habits of a celebrity, positioning himself as someone whose lifestyle is just a bit out of reach. His mingling happens chiefly at his private clubs in Florida, New Jersey and Virginia, where he is not walled off by the Secret Service ...

When he travels it consists of private fundraisers, circumscribed photo-ops or big rallies. He mainly watches Fox News which has turned itself into Trump TV, devoted to serving Trump's ego and pressing his agenda.  He doesn't mingle with the hoi polloi if there's any way to avoid it.

This is reminiscent of feudal kings who spent their days exclusively among their noble courtiers, many of whom acted as personal servants, some in the most intimate ways. The more intimate they were, the more the king would bond with them and the greater access to power they often had.

According to this fascinating piece by the BBC, one of the most famous examples is the Tudor court of King Henry VIII. The king moved from palace to palace and wherever he was, the center of power in the court was his "privy chamber" (what Trump thinks of as the "private residence"), consisting of the king's personal suite. The noblemen who attended him were all "gentlemen of the chamber," required to be there to entertain Henry and keep him company.

The "grooms of the chamber" were even more important. They helped the king dress and because of their close contact with him were powerful advisers. That subjected at least two of them to the jealous wrath of Thomas Cromwell, the king's adviser, and they ended up with their heads on pikes.

But there was one courtier who had an even more intimate job and it led him to a position of great power:

The most intimate position of all was the ‘groom of the stool,’ the man who helped Henry go to the toilet. Henry so trusted and confided in this figure that he was called the ‘chief gentleman of the chamber.’ From the time of Henry VIII onwards, this man was also in charge of the ‘privy purse’ – he was the king’s personal treasurer. In fact, he practically directed England’s fiscal policy.

That's right. King Henry made the man who cleaned up after his bowel movements into the nation's de facto treasurer.

But even being the man who pulled up King Henry's underpants was no guarantee that he would stay in favor. His "gentleman of the stool," Sir Henry Norris, was convicted on a trumped-up charge of treason for allegedly conspiring with Henry's wife Anne Boleyn, and was beheaded along with six others.

Trump's own "chief gentleman of the chamber," Ronny Jackson, should keep in mind that despite their intimate bond, Trump isn't likely to do his own dirty work if it doesn't work out. According to outgoing VA Secretary Shulkin, he found out he was fired from a phone call with White House chief of staff John Kelly, who let him know that Trump was about to tweet the announcement of his replacement. Like Henry Norris and those other "gentlemen of the chamber" double-crossed by rivals, it appears that Shulkin was stabbed in the back by right-wing ideologues when he refused to go along with their underhanded plot to privatize Veterans Affairs. The New York Times editorial board called it a coup.

One hopes for Jackson's sake that the man who's been "velcroed" to the president since the inauguration comes to a better end than Henry Norris. But judging by the massive turnover in Trump's first year, the odds are good that his head will wind up on a metaphorical pike as well.  The more intimate one has been with the king, the more likely he is to become spiteful if he feels betrayed.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

MORE FROM Heather Digby Parton