Dave had an imaginary friend named Donald—but unlike most childish fantasies, this one had real-world consequences: the conviction on thirty-four felony charges of a former and perhaps future president. David Pecker, the former publisher of the National Enquirer, testified at Donald Trump’s criminal trial in April that when they spoke together, he called him “Donald.” While Pecker was giving his evidence, Trump also referred to him publicly by his first name. Speaking to the media outside the courtroom, he said, “Dave has been very nice, a nice guy.” The message to Pecker was clear: be nice to your old buddy. Trump was invoking the bond of reciprocity created by long intimacy, in this case a relationship built up over a quarter of a century. Yet as the prosecution complained before Pecker resumed his testimony, Trump’s words also carried an implicit threat: to the injunction “be nice” was appended a silent “or else”—not quite the language of genuine friendship.

The trial itself was a product of Trump’s inability to grasp the idea of mutual obligation. It seems apt that at the heart of such an astounding moment in American history there is such a banal betrayal. Trump almost certainly wouldn’t have been prosecuted on those charges if he hadn’t been such a lousy friend. During their deliberations the jury asked to hear again portions of Pecker’s testimony that concerned an arrangement in 2016 to pay $150,000 to Karen McDougal, with whom Trump had an affair in 2006 and 2007. Pecker understood, as he told the jury, “that I would be either reimbursed by the Trump Organization or by Donald Trump.” If Trump had honored that deal and given Pecker what he was owed, Pecker would have later repeated the same maneuver to buy and suppress Stormy Daniels’s story of her brief sexual encounter with Trump. Thus Trump’s fixer, Michael Cohen, would not have had to pay Daniels $130,000 himself, and Trump’s reimbursement of Cohen would not have been recorded fraudulently as legal fees.

Pecker told the court, “I felt that Donald Trump was my mentor. He helped me throughout my career.” He also confirmed multiple times that he understood Trump to be his friend. That relationship was the prism through which Pecker viewed the whole business of catching and killing salacious stories on Trump’s behalf. Asked whether he had formal arrangements with Trump to ensure repayment, Pecker replied, “No, they weren’t put into writing. It was just an agreement among friends.” The operation was based on personal trust.

Yet Trump stiffed him. Pecker needed to recoup the $150,000 he paid to McDougal because it was too large a sum to hide from his parent company. The failure to pay was, for him, difficult and distressing. He was repeatedly reassured by Cohen: “Don’t worry…. The Boss will take care of it.” Even bearing in mind that Trump’s real wealth has been grossly exaggerated, $150,000 was not a lot of money for him. But it was a great deal more than Pecker’s friendship was worth.

This episode tells us something much bigger about Trump. One of his favorite sayings, which he misattributes to Abraham Lincoln, is “A friend is one who has the same enemies as you have.” This is an accurate enough summation of the instrumental view of human relationships typical of autocrats. Trump’s problem, though, is that, as Pecker discovered, his friendship is little better than his enmity. Even when it is obviously in his own interest to help those who are loyal and useful, he cannot be trusted to do so.

Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy gives us the fullest sense of what it’s like to be a hanger-on in the court of a capricious narcissist. A pair of courtiers compare such a life to playing chess in the dark, on a board of jelly, with chessmen made of butter. Over the course of the three novels, two dazzlingly successful servants of Henry VIII, Thomas Wolsey and his protégé, Thomas Cromwell, lose the king’s favor. They are stripped of power and then of life. This downfall, in the world Mantel conjures in such convincing detail, is inevitable. The psychopathic ruler’s ultimate expression of power is the destruction of those on whom he has relied most, the ones who have been such good servants that they have developed the temerity to imagine themselves as indispensable. In the end Cromwell is forced to reflect that “Henry has ground and ground me in the mill of his desires, and now I am fined down to dust I am no more use to him, I am powder in the wind. Princes hate those to whom they have incurred debts.”

Yet Mantel’s novels also show that where there is risk, there can be reward. We understand why Wolsey and Cromwell, who are no fools, accept the hazards implicit in the task of navigating the big boss’s whims, rages, moods, and desires. The recompense is as lavish as the danger is acute. They get to build opulent palaces for themselves. They eat the best food and wear the finest clothes. They establish their own satellite courts with their own hangers-on and loyal retainers. They shine with the reflected luster of the monarch’s power and prestige. Part of what makes the novels so gripping is that the risk seems just about worth it. Ultimately it may have been a losing game, but while it lasted it gave these consummate players immense pleasure.


This is one of the things that is so peculiar about Trump’s nexus of power: the rewards are not worth the risks. He hates those to whom he has incurred debts. In her book Confidence Man, Maggie Haberman quotes an anonymous longtime friend who says that “being close to Trump was like ‘being friends with a hurricane.’” He is more a black hole than a sun king. Mantel’s Cromwell, in serving his master, imagines that “I have had my soul flattened and pressed till it’s not the thickness of paper.” Many of Trump’s servants—even if they had souls to begin with—have been so flattened and pressed by the overwhelming density of his self-regard that one has to wonder why others continue to propel themselves into his field of gravity. The typical autocrat revels in his power to give and take; Trump takes everything but gives back only grief and shame.

On April 21, 2018, Robert Costello, acting as a go-between for Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, sent an e-mail to Cohen. Less than a fortnight earlier federal agents had raided Cohen’s office and seized documents related to the $130,000 payment Cohen had made to Daniels on Trump’s behalf. The purpose of Costello’s e-mail was to reassure Cohen that he would be protected: “I spoke with Rudy. Very, very positive. You are loved…. Sleep well tonight. You have friends in high places. Bob. P.S. Some very positive comments about you from the White House.” At Trump’s trial, Costello confirmed that “‘friends in high places’ definitely refers to President Trump.” When Cohen was asked, “What did you understand Mr. Costello to mean by ‘you are loved,’ by whom?” he answered, “By President Trump.”

This is how hierarchies of autocratic power are supposed to operate. Vassals like Cohen do their master’s bidding, and in return they have friends in high places who will protect them from the consequences of their nefarious actions and reward them for their service. But no object of Trump’s love gets to sleep well. Cohen went on to spend thirteen and a half months behind bars and a year and a half in home confinement. He is just one of hundreds of Trump’s supporters and followers who have endured humiliation and disgrace.

Giuliani filed for bankruptcy last December, has lost his license to practice law in New York, may be about to lose his license in Washington, D.C., and faces criminal indictments in Georgia and Arizona. His old age is shadowed by the knowledge that he will die broke and dishonored. The same goes for Allen Weisselberg, the former chief financial officer of the Trump Organization and perhaps Trump’s most trusted functionary. He was sentenced in April to five months in jail after pleading guilty to two counts of perjury during his boss’s civil trial for fraud. It is his second sojourn in the notorious Rikers Island jail—he served one hundred days there in 2023 for offenses committed as Trump’s right-hand man.

Political enablers like Mark Meadows, Steve Bannon, Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, Rick Gates, George Papadopoulos, Roger Stone, Peter Navarro, and Sidney Powell have faced—or still face—various criminal charges. Even those (like Flynn, Stone, and Manafort) whom Trump pardoned had to pay large legal bills and will always bear the stamp of criminality. Lawyers who were sucked into Trump’s orbit—including Jenna Ellis, Kenneth Chesebro, Jeffrey Clark, and John Eastman—are under indictment for their parts in Trump’s schemes to overturn the result of the 2020 presidential election. So are dozens of people who served as fake electors. And more than 460 Trump supporters have been imprisoned for taking part in the assault on the Capitol on January 6, 2021. Among the 244 people who received felony convictions connected to the invasion, the average sentence has been about three and a half years. These are catastrophic outcomes, destroying relationships, careers, and reputations. The prize for their devotion to Trump is a world of pain.

Even those who’ve avoided such disasters have to face Trump’s sadistic ingratitude toward supposed friends. To Mike Pence, Trump “was my president, and he was my friend.” That friendship did not move Trump to talk his fans out of wanting to hang Pence on January 6. Ronna Romney McDaniel served Trump with unctuous loyalty as chair of the Republican National Committee. Her obsequiousness extended to dropping, reportedly at Trump’s request, the half of her surname that linked her to her uncle (and Trump critic) Mitt Romney. Trump nonetheless dumped her in February, in part to clear the way for his daughter-in-law Lara Trump to become cochair of the RNC. McDaniel’s subsequent media career as a political analyst for NBC lasted less than a week before the network dispensed with her, too.


Or consider the pitiful fate of Chris Christie. He imagined himself to be not just a political ally of Trump but a close personal friend; as Christie wrote in his hilariously self-pitying memoir, Let Me Finish, “He told me he loved me.” In return, as governor of New Jersey, Christie became the first senior member of the Republican establishment to endorse Trump for the party’s presidential nomination in 2016—a gesture that marked Trump as a serious contender rather than a mere insurgent outsider. Christie then spent nearly six months leading a team of 140 people to draw up detailed plans for the transition to a putative Trump presidency. When Trump was duly elected and Christie arrived at Trump Tower with his thirty binders full of blueprints for the new administration, they were sent straight to the dumpster and Christie was informed by Bannon that “we do not want you to be in the building anymore.”1

In all of this, Trump’s concept of friendship seems even emptier than that of his notoriously nasty mentor Roy Cohn.2 Haberman writes of Cohn:

To the degree he followed rules, they involved a vague, menacing concept of “friendship.” In 1978, Cohn laid out to the journalist Ken Auletta how far he would go to protect those he saw as friends. “I wouldn’t lie under any circumstances. But I’d do everything I could, within the bounds of legal propriety, not to hurt someone whose friendship I had accepted,” he said.

Trump seems to have no such rule. He seems utterly indifferent to the hurt of his friends.

Even with Cohn himself Trump seemed incapable of generosity. Cohn had used all his dark arts for his protégé: “He’s been vicious to others in his protection of me,” Trump recalled, and said that if he were to sum up his personality, “I think the primary word I’d use is his loyalty.” Yet this did little to affect Trump when Cohn’s former companion Russell Eldridge was terminally ill with AIDS. Trump gave the dying man a suite in his Barbizon-Plaza Hotel but sent the bills to Cohn and tried to insist that he pay them. Knowing that Cohn himself had AIDS, Trump moved his own legal business elsewhere; Cohn was said by his secretary to be “plainly crushed.”

When his younger brother, Robert, died in 2020, Trump wrote in a statement, “He was not just my brother, he was my best friend.” At a press conference he remarked, “We’ve had a great relationship for a long time, from day one.” Yet according to Robert Trump’s obituary in The New York Times, the two men were estranged for years:

Simply being a close family member did not shield him from his brother’s rages when Donald Trump needed someone to blame. Family friends said that as Donald’s star grew, Robert struggled with working for his brother and cast himself as his brother’s polar opposite.

In her family memoir Too Much and Never Enough, Donald’s niece Mary L. Trump wrote of how he tormented Robert from the time they were children:

Donald had discovered early on how easy it was to get under Robert’s pale skin and push him past his limits; it was a game he never tired of playing. Nobody else would have bothered—Robert was so skinny and quiet that there was no sport in tormenting him—but Donald enjoyed flexing his power, even if only over his younger, smaller, and even thinner-skinned brother. Once, out of frustration and helplessness, Robert kicked a hole in their bathroom door, which got him into trouble despite the fact that Donald had driven him to it. When his mother told Donald to stop, he didn’t.

Plato, in The Republic, described the inescapable wretchedness of the tyrannical character; he can never really have a friend:

Men of his kind behave in the same sort of way in private life, before they have gained power. Their companions are parasites in every way subservient to them, and they are themselves always prepared to give way and put on the most extravagant act of friendship if it suits their purpose, though once that purpose is achieved their tune changes.

The consequences of this friendlessness, Plato noted, only worsen as the tyrannical character gains power:

His power will make him still more envious, untrustworthy, unjust, friendless, and godless, a refuge and home for every iniquity, and you can see that he’s a source of misery above all to himself, but also to his neighbours.

This condition was, in the Greek worldview, the ultimate in existential bleakness: “So tyrannical characters pass their lives without a friend in the world; they are always either master or slave, and never taste true friendship or freedom.”

Both sides of this master/slave duality apply to Trump’s practice of friendship. The first is obvious in his refusal of reciprocity: for Trump, friendship is a one-way street. The slavish aspect is evident in his extreme reluctance to repudiate any source of support, however repellent. In 2016 he was very slow to disavow the enthusiastic endorsement of the former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. As president, he was so loath to offend white supremacists, antisemites, and neo-Nazis that he called those who took part in a violent rally in Charlottesville in 2017 “very fine people.” In 2022 he had dinner at Mar-a-Lago with the white supremacist Nick Fuentes and the antisemite Kanye West. Of West he later wrote, “We got along great, he expressed no anti-Semitism, & I appreciated all of the nice things he said about me on [the Fox TV program] ‘Tucker Carlson.’ Why wouldn’t I agree to meet?”

Trump can seem almost childishly desperate to impress even when he is not currying favor with anyone he perceives to have power or fame or anyone who offers him political backing. His efforts to show off at a meeting at his Bedminster golf club in 2021 make him sound like an eager teenager trying to ingratiate himself with the in-crowd. Trump allowed the group, including the ghostwriter working on Meadows’s memoir, to see a secret contingency plan for an attack on Iran: “It’s so cool. I mean, it’s so, look…and you probably almost didn’t believe me, but now you believe me.”

Likewise Trump has always been anxious to claim celebrities as friends. Michael Jackson, Trump tweeted on his death, “was a great friend and a spectacular entertainer.” Joan Rivers “was an amazing woman and a great friend.” Trump was “taking piano lessons from my friend Elton John.” Whitney Houston “was a great friend and an amazing talent.” Andy Williams “was a friend of mine and a great guy.” Tom Brady is, whether he likes it or not, “a friend of mine, he’s a great guy.” “Do you think,” Trump asked his Twitter followers in 2013, “Putin will be going to The Miss Universe Pageant in November in Moscow – if so, will he become my new best friend?” After Trump became president, Putin had to vie for his affections with “my good friend, President Xi of China,” “my friend Kim Jong Un,” and even Queen Elizabeth II, of whom “I am a great friend and admirer.”

This habit of inventing friends was also part of Trump’s shtick in dealing with subordinates. Cliff Sims, who worked for him in the White House, noted in his memoir, Team of Vipers, that “as I got to know Trump, he’d often cite various nameless ‘friends’ whose statements or experiences fit neatly into whatever point he wanted to make.” It is an extraordinary thought: the most powerful man in the world had to fabricate friends in order to convince a relatively junior staffer of the rightness of his opinions.

What are the political implications of Trump’s friendlessness? One is that it contributes to the instability of his use of power. Trump has not been able to create a fixed cohort of political intimates. He has even alienated many of his most prominent enablers, including William Barr, James Mattis, H.R. McMaster, John Kelly, and Mick Mulvaney. Successful authoritarian (as opposed to totalitarian) rulers cultivate networks of loyalty by offering intimacy, patronage, and protection. They institutionalize their authority by recruiting and embracing individuals who in turn can sustain the support of wider groups. These friends of the regime benefit from the boss’s largesse. This is the system perfected, for example, by a politician Trump greatly admires, the Hungarian prime minister and pioneer of “illiberal democracy” Viktor Orbán. In March the US ambassador David Pressman said of Orbán’s Hungary:

All aspects of government power—from procurement, to licensing, to tourism subsidies, to concessions, to tax and audit actions, to regulatory policy—provide favorable treatment for companies owned by party leaders or their families, in-laws or old friends.

Trump, though, is not very good at this kind of personal patronage. His sleaze is primarily nepotistic and self-serving. He keeps too much of it in the family.

Yet this failure has a paradoxical quality. Trump’s faithlessness makes the faith of his acolytes all the purer. In the Republican Party’s congressional caucuses, cynical calculation still dominates: many of its members despise Trump but do his bidding either because they are afraid of him or because they need his help with their voters. But beyond the cohort of professional representative politicians there are the true believers who, unless they are stupid, must know that if they get burned on his behalf Trump will do nothing to save them. In the typical nexus of political corruption, the hanger-on has reasonable expectations of protection and advancement. Having a friend in the highest of places is a clear advantage. The wages for dirty work are good. But Trump’s love is now so plainly tainted that any calculating opportunist has to factor in the probabilities of imprisonment, bankruptcy, and disgrace. When the Boss is not just mad and bad but so obviously dangerous to know, serving him must be thought of as an act more of self-sacrifice than of self-interest. This may sound quite sweet, but what it really amounts to is a gradual replacement of coldly self-serving shrewdness with genuine fanaticism. The first is corrupt; the second is deadly. Those who embrace the possibility of pain for themselves are all the more willing to inflict it on others.

This is true of the inner core of Trump’s enablers, but what of the millions who love him? Friendship, for them, operates in two ways. One is their bond with one another. Meadows, in his memoir, writes of the sense of affinity among those who attend Trump rallies:

In general, I found them to be some of the kindest, most generous people I had ever met. Many of them had met one another at Trump rallies in the past. There was a kinship in the MAGA movement that is almost never reported on, and it includes people from all walks of life. In the months that I had been traveling to rallies with President Trump, I had spent time with carpenters, computer programmers, business owners, and used car salesmen, all of whom seemed like the best of friends as soon as the MAGA hats came out. I saw bartenders milling about with medical doctors, and groups of young people mixing with retirees like it was the most natural thing in the world.

This may be sugarcoated, but there is no reason to doubt its essential truth. The MAGA movement may symbolize hatred, but among its devotees it radiates good vibrations. And Trump, as the occasion of this overflow of amity, seems, if not exactly friendly, then certainly friend-like.

Trump also fills the need, in a harsh and confusing world, for an imaginary friend. The make-believe companion can be forgiven all slights and failures. It is striking that toward the end of his testimony at Trump’s criminal trial, David Pecker was anxious to make clear that in spite of being essentially robbed by Trump, “I have no ill will at all. And I still consider him a close—I still, even though we haven’t spoken, I still consider him a friend.” (Ironically, it was probably this evidence of continuing loyalty that made Pecker’s testimony so damaging to Trump—unlike Cohen, whose hatred for his old boss oozed from every pore, Pecker did not appear to be contaminated by enmity.)

That’s the thing with imaginary friendship—even when the friendship is patently false, the imagination can still make it feel real. Trump, as president, treated most of his voters as he’s treated Pecker. He failed to keep his promises. He didn’t repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace it with something “beautiful,” or make the superrich pay higher taxes, or “drain the swamp” of corporate lobbyists, or become “the voice” of American workers, or eliminate the federal deficit, or bring all the coal mines back to West Virginia, or build a coast-to-coast wall and make Mexico pay for it. Most of his voters did not, in reality, have a friend in high places. But that has only sharpened their desire to believe that “the Boss will take care of it.” The more Trump suffers for his own crimes, the more his voters need to believe that he is suffering for them.