In the Academy Award-winning 1984 film Amadeus, F. Murray Abraham brilliantly portrayed Antonio Salieri as a mediocre court composer who was so threatened by the meteoric rise and prodigious talents of Wolfgang Mozart that he spent the better part of his life mired in spite, trying to bring Mozart down. The film, expertly directed by Milos Forman, takes huge liberties with history (in actuality Salieri’s antagonism toward Mozart was little more than a vague rumor) while conveying a subtle message about the rather pathetic nature of the human condition and the mercurial nature of genius.
Tom Nichols, writing for The Atlantic, observes that the Jan. 6 hearings have provided Americans with a similar glimpse into the pathos of mediocrity as they’ve shone an unforgiving light on the pretensions of several unelected nobodies from the political right, “the men and women who were certain that their moment had finally arrived,” and whose delusional pretensions of future greatness inspired them into acts of treachery significantly exceeding their pay grade.
Some of the folks who have emerged and stood out in this parade of “Trump wannabees,” as Nichols refers to them, have become household names in their own right—not through the force of their noble deeds but by the depth of their treachery and sheer arrogance. Nichols notes two such characters: Jeffrey Clark and John Eastman, two people whose names would never be known by the wider public were it not for their bold attempts to singlehandedly transform the very nature of this sacred republic.
Nichols first skewers Clark, in all respects a fairly bland and unknown environmental lawyer posted to the Justice Department who evidently felt that hitching his star to the Trump campaign was his ticket to greatness:
Consider, for example, Jeffrey Bossert Clark, a minor Justice Department official who sought to oust his own boss and get Trump to make him the attorney general, after which Clark would try to overturn the election results. (Clark has denied that he attempted the ousting.) “History is calling,” Clark told Trump, in what must have been his most Very Serious Adviser voice.
The reality was that Clark was simply the most malleable tool recommended to Trump, one apparently ambitious and amoral enough to submit to whatever preposterous scheme entered the Dear Leader’s conniving mind. But here he was, finding himself playing the Wormtongue, whispering sweet platitudes into his king’s willing ears. But, as Nichols observes, Clark’s flirtation with the ring of power was sadly short-lived:
Clark got his comeuppance in a meeting in the Oval Office when Acting Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue warned Trump that any such appointment would lead to mass resignations, and told Clark: “You’re an environmental lawyer. How about you go back to your office, and we’ll call you when there’s an oil spill.”
Likewise, Eastman, whose legal machinations apparently informed the entire seditious conspiracy, arose from the insular halls of conservative academia as a dean of an unremarkable law school in concocting an illegal and probably treasonous avenue for Trump to retain the Oval Office. Suddenly he too was bathed in the intoxicating limelight, making serious and fraught decisions that could (and likely would) have resulted in a sociopolitical calamity in this country akin to the Civil War. His portentous assumptions apparently knew no boundaries as he confidently relayed his secret knowledge of the Supreme Court’s deliberations—knowledge that had (apparently) been conveyed to him by an equally presumptuous and unelected nobody, Ginni Thomas, whose sole claim to fame lay in the fact that she’d married into the Supreme Court. As Nichols writes:
Greatness called; if it took intimidating the nation’s highest court with civil disorder, well, eggs must be broken, and all that.
Clark and Eastman were among the brigade of mediocrities who saw in Trump a kind of patron saint of the Third String, the outsider who would sweep away the elites who controlled Washington and replace them with a new elite—namely, themselves. No more working in cubicles, hustling for grants, or sucking up for gigs with minor campaigns.
As Nichols notes, Eastman has since endured the ignominy of being outed as a treacherous boob by his former boss, Judge J. Michael Luttig, but his time in the barrel, sadly for him, isn’t over yet. And his license to practice law ever again is certainly subject to forfeit, not to mention his personal freedom.
The examples Nichols provides will no doubt grow as the Jan. 6 hearings continue, with other mediocrities possessed with similar delusions of grandeur revealed as the House select committee continues turning over the rocks, but the reality is that Trump himself provided four years’ worth of unqualified “wannabes” during his unfortunate tenure in office. His press secretaries comprised a chain of utter nobodies elevated into positions where Americans were compelled to try to take them seriously. His federal agency appointees were incompetent yes men, polluter lobbyists, or simply corrupt thugs. The people he put in charge of the handling the deadliest U.S. pandemic in over a century were, for the most part, quacks and ideological, groveling fools.
In fact, with Trump it was a parade of mediocrities and third-stringers from the start. Because when you rely on the worst, the dullest lickspittles you can find, they’re so incredibly grateful that they never think of saying “no.”
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