Medieval Europeans tried to ward off the bubonic plague by drinking vinegar and smearing chopped-up snake bits on their boils, but those who live in a more scientific epoch have little reason to condescend to the magical thinking of the past. The Trump era proves that even the most rational can be seduced by mythical solutions to real problems.
Ever since Donald Trump announced his candidacy in the summer of 2015, there has been a string of false hopes placed in people and institutions that were supposedly going to bring him down—or at the very least mitigate his worst impulses: the Republican establishment, the delegates at the Republican convention, the Electoral College, GOP members of Congress, Trump’s cabinet using the 25th Amendment, and special counsel Robert Mueller. One by one, these supposed bulwarks against an authoritarian president have fallen by the wayside.
One of the most delusional fantasies was the idea that members of Trump’s administration, whether appointed officials or members of the permanent bureaucracy, would serve as a straitjacket. According to this argument, the adults in the room could be trusted to run rings around the easily distracted Trump. Bob Woodward’s best-selling exposé Fear was built around the idea of an “administrative coup” inside the White House. Trump himself seemed to buy into this idea, or at least find it an expedient foil, when he started warning about a “Deep State” conspiracy.
In September of 2018, The New York Times published an anonymous op-ed by a senior Trump administration official that stands as the locus classicus of the straitjacket fallacy. “It may be cold comfort in this chaotic era, but Americans should know that there are adults in the room,” the unnamed official claimed. “We fully recognize what is happening. And we are trying to do what’s right even when Donald Trump won’t.” He further asserted that “there is a quiet resistance within the administration of people choosing to put country first.”
The op-ed was long on assertion but weak on evidence. The only detailed example of defiance of Trump concerned Russia policy, a troubling example since the combination of Trump’s solicitude toward Vladimir Putin with a hard-line military posture is in fact very dangerous, since it sends mixed messages that could provoke war.
Many of the figures most often hailed as the adults in the room have left the Trump administration—H.R. McMaster, John Kelly, Rex Tillerson, and James Mattis. It’s doubtful whether any of them deserved the praise they received as exemplars of prudence and maturity. McMaster was a reckless hawk on North Korea, and Kelly was fully on board for Trump’s nativist immigration policy. Kelly also joined Trump in enthusiastically slinging mud at Representative Frederica Wilson for daring to criticize the president. Tillerson ran the State Department like an autocratic CEO, refusing to listen to career diplomats and leaving key positions vacant. Mattis, although less hawkish than McMaster, had a long-standing obsession with Iran and almost provoked a conflict with that nation in early 2017.
Few of the adults had much staying power or ability to hobble Trump’s policies. Two recent resignations underscore just how feeble the internal resistance really is. On Wednesday, Kimberly Breier, the assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere and a stalwart Republican foreign policy hand, announced she was leaving her post. While the reason given was a desire to spend more time with her family, The Washington Post reports that according to one administration official, Breier “had been chastised, in a particularly unpleasant recent email chain, by White House policy adviser Stephen Miller, who considered her insufficiently committed to publicly defending last month’s sudden agreement over asylum between President Trump and the government of Guatemala.”
It’s telling that Breier not only allowed herself to be chased out by the anti-immigrant zealot Miller but was also willing to deploy the familiar rationale about family obligations as the cause of her exit.
Resignations on matters of principle are rare in Washington; wave-making by ex-officials making explicit why they quit rarer still. The American tradition is for former government officials, both appointed ones and bureaucrats, to adhere to a code of silence, a ruling-class omertà that protects their former bosses. In 1974, during the height of Watergate, The New York Times noted that “American government officials, especially the President’s ‘official family,’ are expected to have their consciences under strict control. Loyalty, not ethical autonomy or resignation, is the name of the game.”
The day after Breier resigned, Foreign Service officer Chuck Park ended his government service. In a stinging op-ed in The Washington Post, he rebutted the notion that there was any effective resistance inside the government.
“Among my colleagues at the State Department, I have met neither the unsung hero nor the cunning villain of Deep State lore,” he observed. “If the resistance does exist, it should be clear by this point that it has failed.”
Instead of the fictional deep state, Park offers the reality of a “Complacent State” that “sighs when the president blocks travel by Muslim immigrants; shakes its head when he defends Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman; averts its gaze from images of children in detention camps. Then it complies with orders.” In other words, the government is staffed with individuals fully complicit in Trumpism.
There is an upside to the failure of the resistance inside the administration: It’s deeply antidemocratic to fantasize about a deep state foiling duly elected officials. Trump, like it or not, was elected president. Unless Trump orders crimes, he should be obeyed. If government officials don’t like what Trump is doing, the proper course of action is to follow Park’s lead: Resign and condemn the president.
The real resistance shouldn’t come from those who work for Trump but from democratic forces outside the White House, from voters, and from Congress. It’s long past time to give up magically thinking about salvation from the adults in the room and refocus our energy on fighting Trump in the political arena.