Anyone watching cable news around noon on Monday witnessed a strange television spectacle, even by the standards of a reality-TV administration.
The President threw himself a love-in, and his whole Cabinet was invited.
The meeting, held before press cameras and microphones, began with US President Donald Trump going around the table to ask each attendee their thoughts, particularly those pertaining to his glory, leadership and success.
Vice-President Mike Pence called working for Trump “the greatest privilege of my life”, and the hosannas rose higher from there.
At one point, White House chief of staff Reince Priebus utters what sounds almost like a prayer, thanking Trump for “the opportunity and the blessing” of working for him.
The whole proceeding – Trump basking in the competitive adulation of his underlings – resembled a meeting of nervous regional commissars pledging fealty to the Dear Leader.
But it also resembled something else.
The world once watched Donald Trump on TV sitting at a boardroom table, with anxious underlings competing for his favour.
That dynamic, on The Apprentice, framed him as decisive, powerful and important. Week after week, contestants scrambled against each other to earn his approval.
Trump knows his symbolism. The boardroom scene, like a lot of reality TV staging, draws on an iconic image – the captain leading his team around a table. We’ve seen it in movies and on TV in great councils, boiler rooms and situation rooms.
In an administration reportedly roiled by power struggles, the tableau might suggest something more like Robert De Niro as Al Capone, playing ball with his “team” in The Untouchables.
The real-life scene was not quite so ominous.
But a classic Monty Python sketch captures something of its social discomfort, as a deranged movie producer drives his writers to mental breakdown by insisting they neither disagree with him nor be yes-men nor be indecisive.
The Trump cabinet example, with its rounds of ham-handed, stagy praise, brought to mind another familiar image: The boss packing a meeting with yes-men, like the General Electric corporate board in an episode of 30 Rock. (To be fair, while Trump has been known to bring his family members into meetings, he has not yet drafted hunting dogs.)
Did anyone buy the performance? The obviousness was so glaring that by afternoon, Senator Charles Schumer, not necessarily known as a laugh riot on camera, had produced a parody video.
Of course, the effectiveness of Trump’s stunt may depend on what he was trying to get out of it. Maybe you can’t claim that you’re wildly successful and universally loved, particularly when your Gallup disapproval rating has matched its all-time high.
But you can show you’re still powerful enough that your people still must at least pretend that you are.
This weird televised suck-up spectacle may not raise Trump’s approval numbers. But it demonstrated that – in Mel Brooks’ words from Blazing Saddles – he can still get a harrumph out of that guy.
New York Times