Bureaucrats may contain Trump, but only voters can defeat him

By Aristophanes

The political media ecosystem is abuzz with the latest controversy from the Trump White House: an anonymous op-ed from a senior official describing attempts to subvert the administration from within.

The piece, which appeared on the New York Times’ website Wednesday afternoon, is something to behold. Seriously, if you haven’t read it yet, take a look. Never in the modern era has a presidential administration been so publicly undermined by one of its own employees — at least not while that individual remained an official part of the regime.

The article has given me, and many others, mixed feelings. The anonymous official is clearly trying to have it both ways. It’s too dangerous, they say, to remove the president via the process laid out in the 25th Amendment. But it’s also too risky to give Trump the unfettered ability to run his government the way he runs his Twitter feed: impulsively, amorally and unpredictably. 

I don’t think the choice is so stark. Either Trump is not fit to be president, in which case he must be deposed, or he is, in which case his unelected staff must do their best to enact his — and, by extension, the American people’s — will.

Now, that’s not to say the professional bureaucracy cannot “guide” Trump as he attempts to differentiate good from bad policy. The president is known to constantly change his mind. What the administrative official may be describing is not clear-cut disobedience, but rather guardrails for governance.

If that is the case, and the administration does not wish to invoke the 25th Amendment, it is highly improper to become a first-person whistleblower in such a self-aggrandizing fashion. Steady Trump’s hand if you must, but do it quietly. By blabbing to the New York Times, you will only make it harder to keep the country safe.

On Thursday, Vox’s Zack Beauchamp mounted a defense of the anonymous official. Near the end of his article, Beauchamp makes a salient point:

The most persuasive criticism of the op-ed isn’t that the author is doing something wrong in the White House, but that going public in the form of an op-ed itself endangers their quiet anti-Trump insurgency.

Beauchamp believes the op-ed writer is right to subvert the president’s worst impulses, but possibly wrong to call attention to it by writing the op-ed. On that point, I agree.

The Economist, whose writers are themselves normally anonymous, made much the same argument in its analysis:

It is easy to see why Trump staffers such as Anonymous want more credit for their escapades. Serving Mr Trump is a thankless task. But it is hard to imagine what he hoped to achieve with his allegations. The president’s opponents believed them already—and have little sympathy for those who, by covering for Mr Trump, empower him. The president’s supporters will see the article as evidence for his claim to be opposed by a shadowy “deep state”. And saving America from Mr Trump has presumably just got harder. The president is liable to treat the next person who advises him against leaving the WTO or castigating an ally with suspicion. Anonymous should have put his name to his claims, to bolster their credibility, or stayed silent.

That hits the nail on the head. I praise the anonymous official, and others like them, for containing Trump’s worst tendencies, but I cannot but say that the op-ed should never have been written. Its existence will only increase the president’s paranoia, making it less likely he listens to his most responsible advisers from here on out. And we need Trump to trust men like James Mattis, the secretary of defense, and Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence. Unlike their commander in chief, they know what they’re doing.

Which brings me to Adam Serwer, a writer for the Atlantic. In a piece published Thursday, he made an excellent observation on the matter:

Although there are grounds for Republicans in Congress and in the White House to use their constitutional authority to remove Trump based on this alone, Trumpism must lose at the ballot box for its defeat to mean anything at all. Trumpism must not be martyred.

Serwer is right. If Trump is brought down by the so-called “deep state,” there’s a risk his voters will merely elect another nationalist in much the same vein. Likewise for a partisan impeachment process led solely by the Democratic Party, should it retake the House of Representatives this November. (Though, that’s not quite the same as saying a Democratic House shouldn’t impeach Trump — I would argue Conrgess’ lower chamber has a constitutional duty to do so. But such action, if ever taken, will not end Trumpism. It likely won’t even result in the conviction and removal of Trump, himself.)

Trump’s distinct brand of authoritarian politics must be defeated at the ballot box, soundly, to ensure it never again rears its ugly head. Only when a critical mass of Trump voters begin to see the error of their ways can our country move forward into a brighter, fairer future.

That means senior White House officials should be responsible and meek, not lambast the administration in anonymous op-eds. We need a steady hand at the wheel, for now, to prevent irrevocable damage to our democracy, so that one day we can truly make America great again. ■

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