News & Politics

Washington in the Age of Don’t

Any large group of people is going to exhibit a certain number of quirks. This administration's go beyond counting your almonds.

Photograph via iStock.

Over the past week, Washington’s learned more and more about what sets off President Trump and his top officials: If you’re a reporter in the White House Press Briefing Room, don’t shake your head at Sean Spicer, unless you want a dressing-down from the lectern. If you work at the Energy Department, don’t write phrases like “climate change,” “emissions reduction” or “Paris Agreement,” lest you want to provoke a visceral reaction from Energy Secretary Rick Perry. Don’t expect to get a solo meeting with the Vice President if you’re a woman other than Karen Pence. And don’t you dare leave your glass, coaster, or placard too close to the President’s place-setting.

The most talked-about detail of the Trump Administration, at least since Thursday night, has been Secretary of State Rex Tillerson‘s supposed ocular aversion to his Foggy Bottom underlings. “Many career diplomats say they still have not met him, and some have been instructed not to speak to him directly—or even make eye contact,” the Washington Post reports.

There’s plenty reason to be cautious about this description of Tillerson: That same Post story also tells that the former ExxonMobil chief executive has been so walled-off from the day-to-day people at the State Department, career employees have grown to “swap paranoid stories about Tillerson that often turn out to be untrue.” The Associated Press diplomatic correspondent Matt Lee also says the no-eye-contact edict is false. Still, it’s easy to see how people at State might have these perceptions of their new boss, who appears to be particularly hermitic and mysterious in an administration full of political neophytes. The secretary’s alleged refusal to engage with the department he now leads—a job which, by his own admission, he was hesitant to take—is consistent with the rest of the “don’ts” exhibited by the new administration.

To be sure, any environment featuring people who wield great power will reveal certain quirks and peccadilloes. But there’s a difference between, say, a nightly snack of seven almonds, and orders against certain words and behaviors that wouldn’t typically be forbidden. Having someone shake their head in response to something you said might not be your favorite reaction, but it’s a perfectly human one. “Emissions reduction” isn’t something that wandered off the Federal Communications Commission’s list of things you can’t say on television, it’s a weirdly specific limitation on other people’s diction.

These are behaviors that are seen in people with narcissistic personalities,” says Gregory Jones, a DC clinical psychologist who says Trump is a frequent topic among his clients. “The narcissist will use techniques to get their way and shutting other people down, whether it’s gas-lighting, shutting other people down, or coming up with these ridiculous demands for how people should to their job.”

Plenty’s been written about Trump’s narcissistic tendencies, but the past ten weeks have allowed Washington to experience them in action. His habits—along with those displayed by his cabinet and staff—feed the image of an emotionally shaky administration. And that has a way of trickling down to career public servants. “The narcissist will initially come off very charismatic and have the ability to pull people in,” Jones says. “Each one of these things are ways to disarm people. But they cause people to be in their head, [get] distracted, and lose focus.”

They aren’t the only ones distracted. The veracity of Tillerson’s avoidance of eye contact with State employees is difficult to test, but the claim still circulates strongly enough to pass muster with the Post. Spicer’s admonishment of April Ryan, the head-tilting reporter, becomes a rallying point on Twitter and in speeches from Hillary Clinton. Mike Pence‘s refusal to hold one-on-one meetings with women is a lens into how he approaches issues important to women. Perry’s reported list of banned phrases makes it more difficult for Energy Department scientists to do their jobs.

With so many demands on Washington’s ordinary behaviors coming from the new people in charge, we’re living in an age of “don’t.”

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.