In the wake of Bob Woodward’s latest bombshell book and the publication of an anonymous op-ed by a purported senior member of the Trump administration claiming to be resisting the president’s agenda, the press and the blogosphere have erupted in one of America’s periodic moral fits about civic duty.
Are appointees who attempt to restrain Trump a pack of skulking cowards who should instead resign and oppose Trump openly, or does pragmatism dictate having clinically sane operatives in place who at least might stay the hand poised over the nuclear button, rather than granting alt-right stormtroopers the run of the West Wing? And those sympathetically portrayed characters in the Woodward book: how grateful should we be to them for supposedly preventing Trump from blowing up the world?
Guessing the identity of “Anonymous” has become an amusing parlor game within the Beltway, but that does not concern us here. Political operatives, even senior ones, are mostly interchangeable parts, like Lego blocks, with resumes to match: the usual prestige university (or maybe Hillsdale), ideological grooming via a fellowship at the Hoover Institution (or maybe a Wall Street brokerage), an assistant secretary of something-or-other job in a past Republican administration (or maybe clerking for Tony Scalia).
Anonymous seems to fit all the criteria: He (or she) “want[s] the administration to succeed and think[s] that many of its policies have already made America safer and more prosperous.” The problem is, Trump just doesn’t grasp the importance of Heritage Foundation taglines like “free minds, free markets and free people.” But we shouldn’t get Anonymous wrong: “There are bright spots that the near-ceaseless negative coverage of the administration fails to capture: effective deregulation, historic tax reform, a more robust military and more.”
We get the idea. Anonymous came into the administration thinking that Trump, for all his unsavory personal quirks, would become an obedient automaton who would sign the bills that a GOP Congress would send to his desk, drone the Middle East at a rate slightly higher than his predecessors, and raise money for the party. And Trump almost delivered: as Anonymous says, more wealth was redistributed upwards, corporations can now pollute and defraud consumers more than was previously allowable, and military contractors got a big payday that will undoubtedly be recycled as political contributions to grateful Republican officeholders.
But Trump’s allergy to civil discourse spoiled the whole show. It’s important that Republicans smile, and maybe quote Milton Friedman, when they’re promulgating a rule to allow surface mining in Yosemite or legislating to strip someone of healthcare. Never mind that since the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, the Conservative Media-Entertainment Complex has grown increasingly uncivil, increasingly unhinged, and has created an audience of tens of millions conditioned to be receptive to exactly the kind of rhetorical performance art that Trump delivers and that Anonymous – for all his immersion in conservative theology – finds distasteful. He refuses to accept the reality that Republican politics these days is a package deal: once you buy into Friedrich Hayek, it’s sheer pseudo-intellectual snobbery to reject Alex Jones.
Anonymous regards himself and his colleagues as “unsung heroes” in a moral struggle. Woodward recounts similar derring-do by former Trump appointees who obligingly allowed themselves to be interviewed, and thus received sympathetic treatment by the author. One of these persons is former National Economic Council chairman Gary Cohn, whose tag-teaming with former White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter to rearrange and purloin the papers on Trump’s desk to avert the Armageddon du jour caused much wonderment among the Beltway commentariat.
But a more revealing incident than the paperwork switcheroo occurred after the August 2017 violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Trump’s pointed non-condemnation of the neo-Nazi marchers. Cohn was unnerved both by the violence and when his daughter found a swastika on her college dorm room; he tried to resign and was forthwith accused of "treason" by Trump. But the latter then persuaded Cohn to stay on: the chance to pass a tax bill was a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” as Cohn told the press. Hey, Nazis are bad, but I’ve got a chance to funnel money to my Wall Street pals. Duty before scruples.
But that is not the end of the story. Later that year, Trump and Cohn were discussing details of the tax bill. Trump thought it would be politically easier to lower the corporate rate if the top individual rate were increased to 44 percent from 39.6 percent.
"Sir, you can't take the top rate up," Cohn said (according to Woodward). "You just can't."
"What do you mean?"
"You're a Republican," Cohn, said, adding that the president would "get absolutely destroyed" if he raised the top individual rate.
Trump "seemed to understand" Cohn's point.
There you have it. Even Trump, the arch-plutocrat and grifter, was instinctively less generous to his own class (and himself) than one of the “adults in the room” who made up his administration, and whom Woodward invites us to admire, at least in comparison to gargoyles like Steve Bannon. Cohn eventually did leave the Trump White House in March 2018, distraught at the president’s imposition of tariffs. What Nazis couldn’t accomplish in terms of awakening Cohn’s conscience, Trump’s departure from economic orthodoxy did.
It is undoubtedly a good thing that Pentagon appointees are doing what they can to prevent Trump from bringing on the Apocalypse with a tweet. That does not, however prevent the day-to-day erosion of ethical standards such as we have seen with national security adviser John Bolton’s jihad against the International Criminal Court and any nation that cooperates with it.
The entire matter of Trump’s appointees working, in Anonymous’ words, “to frustrate parts [but only parts] of his agenda and his worst inclinations,” leaves a distasteful residue of equivocation and moral compromise. Who did they think they were signing up to work for, anyway? It is not as if Trump, whose obnoxiousness and moral bankruptcy have been obvious for decades, was an unknown quantity.
Now that the Good Ship Trump is steaming at full speed towards a midterm electoral reckoning if not a date with a criminal legal proceeding, Anonymous and his like-minded colleagues are wheeling out the Albert Speer gambit. We are cultured, university-educated people who believe in “first principles,” they are signaling, not the riffraff that shows up at rallies.
We stayed on working for this monster only in order to prevent the worst.