The Ethics of #Resistance

Before Donald Trump was even inaugurated, I urged professionals to leave government service if they could and refuse to work for Donald Trump if a position were offered.

Today, tens of thousands of professionals employed by the federal government are asking themselves: Should I stay, or should I go?

A column by Ross Douthat in Friday’s New York Times says, basically, “Stay. A minority of Americans have somehow contrived to elect an expedient ignoramus who is deeply hostile to your country’s ideals, and now your country needs you more than ever.” A column by David Leonhardt in today’s New York Times echoes Douthat’s argument.

We need your professionalism, your expertise, your respect for democratic norms and American values. Stay on. Stay on, please, for your country.


Certainly, I agree that we have elected an incompetent and ignorant proto-fascist with the instincts of a cheap thug. I sharply disagree that an honorable professional can or should serve under his administration.

What do you know? Those who sought a middle position between service and avoidance are the targets of especial scorn. Consider this editorial in Tuesday’s New York Times.

Then there’s Anonymous, the White House insider who wrote an Op-Ed essay for The Times in September 2018, followed by a book to be released later this month, positioning the author as part of a noble “resistance” within the administration. These officials supported many of the president’s policies, Anonymous wrote in the essay:

But we believe our first duty is to this country, and the president continues to act in a manner that is detrimental to the health of our republic.

That is why many Trump appointees have vowed to do what we can to preserve our democratic institutions while thwarting Mr. Trump’s more misguided impulses until he is out of office.

This kind of thinking may help the Tillersons and Kellys sleep better at night. But it is a weak excuse for propping up a president who continues to erode democratic norms and the rule of law.

I take the point, but think it’s overly harsh. These workers are in exactly the vise I predicted they would be in: From one side they are feeling pressure from a lawfully elected president, and from the other they have to deal with the reality that the lawfully elected president is a corrupt and ignorant madman and obeying his orders does very grave harm.

They are making the best of an appalling situation, and they are doing it knowing that a shocking proportion of the Congress is unwilling to uphold the norms of decent, democratic society or, even, American ideals. It was anticipating just such a circumstance that I argued professionals should refuse to serve in this administration.

True, if they had taken my advice a lot of contractors would have waited a long time to get paid, a lot of floors would have gone unswept, a lot of decisions would have been delayed, a lot of terrorists would not have been foiled — but they wouldn’t be taking abuse from editorials and the GOP. What is more, today there would be no denying Donald Trump’s thoroughgoing incompetence and authoritarian indifference to the country’s well-being, and even the GOP would be panting to get rid of him.

The professionals who perform government service should not be in the position of having to choose between letting the government break and fail outright, or suffer partisan abuse for their efforts to keep it staggering along in the face of systemic incompetence and lawlessness.

One more thing: As the date stamp on the prior post I linked-to shows, it was clear long before the inauguration that Trump is incompetent, that Trump is corrupt, that responsible professionals in his government would be cruelly whipsawed. I do think that those who stayed, and those who signed-up, made a foolish and avoidable error (at least with respect to their personal well-being). But I am sure that the majority of those who made that error did so from good faith optimism — Could Trump really be that awful? — and they don’t deserve now to be bashed for their trusting, honorable intentions.

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