Donald Trump, of course, is the forty-fifth President of the United States. He is a real person, but Leroy Jethro Gibbs is not. He is the central character in NCIS, one of the most popular and longest running shows on network television. Gibbs is a Senior Special Agent in the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.
The Trump campaign is known to have targeted NCIS viewers. Why? What appeal would a show like NCIS have for Trump voters?
The honor to serve
Let’s look at a scene from an episode in season seven, which started airing in 2009. The episode is called “One Shot, One Kill”. It opens in a video game arcade where some teen-aged boys are blown away by the skill of Marine Corps sergeant. We cut to a recruiting office where the sergeant is giving the boys the hard sell about hitching up. He’s talking about Iraq: “Been in the corps 16 years. Closest I’ve ever come to a bullet is…” Shatter! Wham! Splatt! He’s shot. Slumps over on the desk.
Gibbs and his team are called in to investigate. In the course of their investigation the recruiter who replaces the first one is also shot. In both cases, sitting at the desk, shot from long distance, through the window. Sniper.
Gibbs decides he’s got to go under cover. He’ll pretend to be a Marine recruiter, which will be easy form him as he had once been a Marine. To protect Gibbs bullet-proof glass is placed in the window and he wears a bullet-proof vest. Three microphones are placed outside so that, when the shooter fires, their Forensic Specialist, Abby Sciuto, can pick up the sound and use it to triangulate the shooter’s location. We then scoot over there and make the arrest.
We’re in the recruiting office, Gibbs looking sharp in his old Marine uniform. One of his Senior Agents, Kate Todd, is in uniform as a captain. She’s there to profile potential recruits as they visit they office. The major who heads the recruiting unit wants to stay; after all, he’s lost two men to this sniper. Gibbs objects. The major insists.
The matter is resolved (c. 34:39):
Gibbs: Major, your mission is to protect our country. Our mission right now is to protect you, and your marines. Allow us the honor of doing our job.
Major: Good luck Gunnery Sergeant.
That phrase – “the honor of doing our job” – may be the ideological and ethical heart of NCIS. I can see why it resonates with Trump voters. It resonates with me, and I voted for Hillary.
Gibbs knows that, in undertaking this assignment, he’s putting himself in harm’s way. He’s done that before, when he was a Marine sniper. He’s got his values. He serves a cause larger than himself. He serves his country, without hesitation.
NCIS is a show where values are clear and duty calls. Oh, there’s muck and murk along the way, but the fundamental moral structure of the universe is clear. It’s a show were the workplace is “like family.” People are loyal to and trust one another. Sure, there’s conflict and tension, plenty of bickering, but we’re all in this together. For country and family.
Everything in its place
We can see a bit of that family tension in a scene from the first episode of the second season, “The Good Wives Club”. Gibbs is onsite with his team, consisting of Senior Special Agent Tony DiNozzo, Special Agent Kate Todd, and Tim McGee, a probationary Special Agent who has just joined the team. Gibbs has just introduced the team to Lt. Commander Willis, head of security at a base where a woman’s dead body has been found. As Gibbs continues to talk with Willis we hear this conversation (1:36):
DiNozzo (talking to Todd): When Gibbs introduced us he introduced you, then McGee, then me. Why’d he mention me last.
Todd: You are kidding.
DiNozzo: No. For Gibbs to mix up the seniority order like that, just seems weird that’s all.
McGee: I don’t think it really means…
Todd: I wouldn’t put too much stock in it.
DiNozzo: Why do you say that?
Todd: Well, because I don’t think it has anything to do with seniority.
DiNozzo: What do you think it has to do with?
Todd: My guess would be level of intelligence and general competence. DiNozzo holds up his hand and turns to McGee.
McGee just barely begins to speak: I didn’t say anything.
DiNozzo: It’s what yer thinking, Probie.
DiNozzo’s insecurity is a real but also a minor issue. Todd’s witty reply is a bit insulting, as it’s meant to be. This is playful banter. Their willingness to play around like this is evidence that they trust and respect one another.
The world of NCIS is one where seniority is important. It’s our world. And it’s a military world, though NCIS agents are civilians the crimes involve the military. The fact that the show would devote time to a scene like this indicates the importance of order to the show: a place for everything, and everything in its place.
After that bit of conversation we shift to the crime scene and the show goes about its business. The crime is solved (the criminal, in this case, commits suicide) and the episode ends with this bit of banter (41:53):
Gibbs: DiNozzo, Kate, McGee. M-TAC now!
DiNozzo: DiNozzo, Kate, McGee. DiNozzo, Kate, McGee! [In order by seniority.]
Todd: Beatnik gone? [He’d just complained of a ‘beatnik’ playing bongos in his head.]
Think about that for a bit. At the beginning of the episode a senior agent gets his nose bent out of shape because his boss doesn’t introduce his team in order of seniority. That’s a minor matter. And that minor matter, nonetheless, gets resolved at the end of the show. That is very elegant writing, elegant craft.
In the large, a crime has been committed. A woman has been murdered, several women in fact. There is a breach in the social fabric; world is out of order. Gibbs’s team is called in. They solve the case. Order restored, fabric repaired.
And that’s what crime shows in general are about, restoring order in the world after a crime has been committed. Moreover, many of the crimes in NCIS are acts of terrorism. The show premiered in September 2003, two years after 9/11, an event that put terrorism on everyone’s mind – much like the nuclear arms race was on everyone’s mind at of the Cold War in the 1950s and 1960s (remember ‘duck and cover’ and civil defense and fallout shelters?). THAT is surely an aspect of NCIS’s general appeal and one that would be particularly appealing to Trump supporters, who are particularly anxious about the nation’s borders.
What’s particularly interesting about NCIS is that this dance of order and disorder is written into the show’s texture. DiNozzo’s status anxiety is a running motif in the show. Beyond that, consider the show’s three more or less intellectual characters: Medical Examiner Dr. Donald “Ducky” Mallard, NCIS Forensic Specialist Abby Sciuto, and Special Agent Tim McGee (MIT graduate and computer whiz). In a typical scene Gibbs will ask one of them What’s going on? They’ll start rambling on about this that and the other, mostly technical details, until Gibbs cuts them off and demands, What’s the point? He’s clearly annoyed and so, I strongly suspect, is the audience. I know I am.
The work they’re doing, their reasoning, is of course important in solving the crime. But Gibbs trusts them. He doesn’t need to know the details. He needs to know what they do next. The details just get in his way as he makes those decisions and takes those actions. When he cuts off their rambling and they cough up the goods, order is restored – not in the large, the crime at hand, but in the small, the texture of interaction between individuals. Of course, in bringing them to the point, Gibbs is also asserting his authority over them, the authority of the man of action over the rambling intellectual – another feature that presumably would be attractive to Trump voters (and to many others as well).
Personal interest vs. public duty
Let’s now turn our attention to a deeper issue. For it turns out that Gibbs himself has committed an egregious breach in the social fabric. When Gibbs was in the Marines his first wife and daughter were murdered by a Mexican drug-dealer. Gibbs in turn shot the drug-dealer, leaving an empty shell casing at the scene. He was never caught. Yes, the drug-dealer was a “bad hombre’; he deserved what he got. But, yes, Gibbs is guilty of murder.
Consider a scene in the next to the last episode, number 23, of season seven, “Patriot Down” . Abby Sciuto, the Forensic Specialist, had been invited to Mexico to give a lecture. While there she was asked to look into a 20-year-old case involving a murdered drug dealer, the drug dealer Gibbs had murdered. She figured out that the shell casing must have come from Gibbs’ gun (don’t ask how, it’s complicated). We’re now in Abby’s lab. Gibbs has just consulted Abby on the current case and turns to leave. She prevents him from doing so (c. 36:33):
Abby Sciuto: The evidence in my report says that you killed Pedro Hernandez. And you're not even willing to talk to me about it.
Gibbs: I didn't think I needed to.
Abby: I owe you everything. You're Gibbs. No one needs to know the truth about the Hernandez investigation. I am willing to do anything for you. I just need you to tell me what to do.
Gibbs: No, you don't Abbs. I've only ever needed you to do one thing.
Abby: My job. But it's different this time. I mean it has to be, right?
Gibbs: No, it doesn't. […]
Abby: Gibbs… What do I do?
Gibbs: You send in the report to the task force. All of it.
Abby: I know. You shouldn't have to tell me, right?
Gibbs smiles and kisses her on the forehead.
That last gesture, Gibbs kissing Abby on the forehead, is that a blessing? He knows what will happen when that report is read by the Mexican officials. Abby was willing to protect him, but Gibbs tells her not to.
Why, when Abby made it clear that she was willing to protect him, did Gibbs refuse her offer? The only answer that makes sense is that Gibbs respects the law and the institutions it represents more than he values his personal liberty. Yes, he had broken the law once, years ago when he was grief-stricken at the loss of his family. Since then he’s spent twenty years defending the law. He’s changed.
That kind of decision has deep roots in Western culture. In one of his early dialogs, The Crito, Plato tells how Socrates had been condemned to death. His friend Crito visits him there and explains that he has made arrangements for Socrates to escape. Socrates refuses, arguing that he lived his life within the Athenian state and that it is the laws of Athens that gave his actions meaning, even though he may have criticized the state. For him to run from the state even though it had condemned him unjustly would be to undermine the foundation of his life.
The same with Gibbs. He shot and killed a man. He felt that he was justified in doing so and, I suspect, most of the people in the show’s audience would have felt so as well. But he broke the law. He has now spent two decades of his life in service to that law. For Gibbs to ask Abby to spike her report would be to make a mockery of the law and therefore of the last two decades of his life.
Recall the center of that conversation:
Abby: I am willing to do anything for you. I just need you to tell me what to do.
Gibbs: No, you don’t Abbs. I've only ever needed you to do one thing.
Abby: My job. But it’s different this time. I mean it has to be, right?
Gibbs: No, it doesn’t.
Gibbs is in effect telling her that her duty to the law, to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, to the country, outweighs, must outweigh, her personal loyalty to him – and personal loyalty counts for a lot in Gibbs’s world. But he doesn’t actually say anything like that. It is up to the viewer to understand that that’s what’s going on.
What would Donald do?
Now, let us ask: If Donald Trump were in a similar situation, what would he have done? Just look at his conduct toward the Justice Department over the investigation of L’Affaire Russe, as Lawfare’s Ben Wittes likes to call it . In particular, consider his treatment of James Comey, how he tried to recruit Comey’s personal loyalty and how he fired him when Comey did the right thing and refused. I have little doubt that if Trump had been in Gibbs’s place, he’d have ordered Abby to falsify her report and destroy the evidence. Donald Trump is no Leroy Jethro Gibbs.
Donald Trump walks all over that crucial distinction between his personal interests and his duty to the country as President. That is what is at issue in his refusal to release his tax returns and his refusal to divest himself of his business interests. That is what is at issue in those tweets from his personal account where he leaks, demeans, rages, contradicts, preens, parades, and bloviates all over the public record 140 characters at a time. That is what is at issue in making his son-in-law – the young hot-shot real estate mogul who made a dumb deal for a property at 666 Fifth Avenue – Roving Ambassador Plenipotentiary and General Fixer-Upper for Just About Everything. The list goes on and on. As far as I can tell, Trump is in it for the money and the adulation. He makes no distinction between service to Trump and service to the United States of America.
Why, then, if the real Donald Trump is so very different from the fictional Leroy Jethro Gibbs, why would any one attracted to NCIS vote for Trump?
In this particular instance, Gibbs was not in any danger when he told Abby to perform her legal duty. We learn in the next episode that someone else intercepted that report before it could reach Mexico. Gibbs was free. But still knows what he did, and so did Abby, and that someone else.
Of course, the audience couldn’t have known in episode 23 that the report would be quashed in episode 24. Still, this is a television show and TV shows have unspoken rules. One of them is that the central figure always comes out “clean” in the end. And Gibbs did. Remember – I certainly did – that, even if he stepped outside the law, he was revenging the death of his wife and daughter. That loss itself was a motif that appeared from time to time in the series. That’s what makes this bit of fictional flimflamming emotionally and aesthetically acceptable – to Trump voters and, I admit it, to me as well.
As for the distinction between one’s interests as an individual person and one’s duties and responsibilities as a law enforcement officer, I submit that, unless the distinction is already deep in your blood, as it were, it’s all but invisible. While NCIS makes the distinction, it doesn’t talk about it very much. And that, explicit talk, is important. Without such talk we can respond to Gibbs’s sense of duty – as, for example, we saw it in the first scene we looked at – without really thinking about his ability to distinguish between his personal interests and his public duty. I fear that Trump supporters are either oblivious to that distinction or the emotional satisfaction they get from Trump’s various actions and pronouncements outweighs their concern about the separation of public and private interests. He uses their fear and anxiety to feed his megalomania.
God save the Queen!
By way of contrast let’s look at The Crown, an original Netflix series about Queen Elizabeth II of England. The first season starts with Elizabeth as a Princess and shows her transition to being Queen. The distinction between her acts and feelings as a private individual and her duties and responsibilities as the Queen is a major, if not THE major, theme of the season.
In episode five, “Smoke and Mirrors”, we have the coronation . Here she is discussing the ceremony with her husband, Philip. He urges her to televise the ceremony. She resists for awhile, then (c. 39:05):
Elizabeth: I'll support you in the televising.
Philip: You won't regret it.
Elizabeth: On one condition. That you kneel.
Philip: Who told you?
Elizabeth: My Prime Minister. He said you intended to refuse.
Philip: I merely asked the question. Whether it was right in this day and age that the Queen's consort, her husband, should kneel to her rather than stand beside her.
Elizabeth: You won't be kneeling to me.
Philip: That's not how it will look. That's not how it will feel. It will feel like a eunuch, an amoeba, is kneeling before his wife.
Elizabeth: You'll be kneeling before God and the Crown as we all do.
Philip: I don't see you kneeling before anyone.
Elizabeth: I’m not kneeling because I'm already flattened under the weight of this thing.
Philip: Oh, spare me the false humility. Doesn't look like that to me.
Elizabeth: How does it look to you?
Philip: Looks to me like you're enjoying it. It's released an unattractive sense of authority and entitlement that I have never seen before.
Elizabeth: And in you, it's released a weakness and insecurity I've never seen before.
Philip: Are you my wife or my Queen?
Elizabeth: I'm both.
Philip: I want to be married to my wife.
Elizabeth: I am both and a strong man would be able to kneel to both.
Philip: I will not kneel before my wife.
Elizabeth: Your wife is not asking you to.
Philip: But my Queen commands me?
Philip: I beg you make an exception for me.
This conversation, unlike the one between Gibbs and Abby, is quite explicit about the distinction between the private person and the public official. You can’t miss it.
For what it’s worth, The Crown was released on November 4, 2016, four days before the presidential election in the United States. I can’t help but thinking that that was timed to coincide with a likely win for Hilary Clinton, making her the first female head of state for the United States. That did not happen. But the issue at the center of that show has turned out to be agonizingly relevant to the election's outcome.
This distinction, between personal interest and public duty, is of course not specific to heads of state. In the modern world it applies to all government officials at all levels, from the local cop on the beat, to the county clerk, the mayor, the head of the transportation department (city, county, and state), the governor, and right back up through Congressmen and Senators, Cabinet officers, and the President and Vice-President. All of them, everyone, are enjoined from using their public positions for private purposes. Many of them fail in that duty, sometimes in minor, sometimes in major ways. That’s what corruption is, the use of one’s public position for private gain.
Nor is corruption merely a public offense. It is anathema, if all too common, in the world of private business as well. People working for corporations are not supposed to give favors to personal acquaintances.
The institutions of our society are built on that important and very fragile distinction. Your interests as a private individual must be kept separate from your duties as an employee of an organization, public or private. That is why Trump’s behavior is so egregious and so dangerous. He is a threat to The Constitution itself, not simply in this or that particular, but to its very existence. He undermines the rule of law.
He is no Leroy Jethro Gibbs. He is no Queen Elizabeth II. He’s an insecure bully from Queens who was born on third base and thinks he hit a home run. He is not worthy of the men and women who voted for him and he demeans and diminishes those who, in a desire to serve their country, serve directly under him.
He should be impeached. Only then can we restore honor and dignity to the Federal Government. Only then can we restore America’s place in the world.
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 Lawfare is essential reading for anyone concerned about the vicissitudes of the Trump Presidency. Look at the items filed under Donald Trump. Concerning the point at issue in this essay, the distinction between the private individual and the public official, I recommend Benjamin Wittes and Quinta Jurecic, What Happens When We Don’t Believe the President’s Oath?, and Quinta Jurecic, Body Double: What Medieval Executive Theory Tells Us About Trump’s Twitter Accounts.
 For the dialog from this episode I used a transcript by bunniefuu from Forever Dreaming.
 For this dialog I used a transcript from Springfield! Springfield!
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