After The New York Times Op-Ed page published an anonymous Trump administration official praising themselves and others for trying to keep the powers of the presidency out of the actual president’s hands, I found myself nodding along to two kinds of essays about this inside-the-administration Resistance — even though they were making superficially opposing points, one against resistance, one in favor of it.
The first sort of essay argued that by working to thwart a duly-elected president, the anti-Trumpers inside the administration aren’t saving democracy but subverting it — and setting us up for a bigger crisis down the road.
Issues like free trade and foreign policy, where the anonymous op-ed writer vehemently disagrees with the president, “were hotly debated and thrashed out publicly in the campaign,” National Review’s Michael Brendan Dougherty pointed out, and “this adviser’s side arguably lost the popular debate.” When such a debate is fought and lost, The Federalist’s Ben Domenech wrote, the losers “should want the voters to reap the benefits of their bad (from their perspective) decisions: oh, so you want a trade war? Let’s do that then, and you’ll pay the price.”
To choose internal subversion instead, Damon Linker complained in The Week, is to basically decide that if a conservative president is “an ideological heretic,” a non-Reaganite, he doesn’t get to govern on the agenda he put before the voters — which makes True Conservative ideological correctness “more important than honoring the outcome of a democratic election.”
By contrast, the other kind of essay argued that because the presidency’s powers are so sweeping, having a president as personally reckless and unfit as Donald Trump simply requires people around him to supply some unusual forms of resistance and constraint.
There are so few “practical checks on the executive branch’s ability to initiate force,” wrote Zack Beauchamp in Vox, that letting an unstable executive have his way can court unacceptable risks — like nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula, let’s say. “Surely,” wrote Quin Hillyer for the Washington Examiner, “if a president rashly orders the assassination of foreign heads of state (contradicting federal law) or, Lord forbid, a tactical nuclear strike without ample justification, all Americans would want senior officials to slow things down rather than immediately implement those orders.” One might say the same of Trump’s obvious impulses toward politicizing his own Justice Department, firing Bob Mueller, and more.
The fact that I found both sets of essays compelling suggests that their arguments can be harmonized — and I think they can, to some extent.
One might say that insofar as the officials resisting Trump are trying to prevent his temperamental unfitness from leading to some mass-casualty disaster or moral infamy, they are doing the country a great service.
But insofar as they are just trying to prevent him implementing possibly misguided populist ideas, they are being presumptuously anti-democratic and should resign instead.
The trouble is that there is obviously a gray area between these two categories. And it’s in the nature of ideology to convince people that only their preferred policy ideas stand between the country and disaster.
So, for instance, in Bob Woodward’s account of White House maneuvers, the example of James Mattis slow-walking a fleeting presidential desire to decapitate the Assad regime strikes me as the admirable sort of internal resistance.
But then the example of Gary Cohn stealing a letter off Trump’s desk to prevent him from dissolving the U.S.-South Korean trade compact seems closer to an example of the anti-democratic vice — because after all, Trump campaigned on renegotiating trade deals, didn’t he? And yet I’m sure Cohn justified himself on more existential grounds, imagining the unraveling of the peninsular security arrangement and, eventually, a horrifying war.
Russia policy presents a similar gray area. Our nuclear arsenals and security commitments make it an area of existential danger where ignorance and rashness need to be restrained. But at the same time Trump explicitly campaigned on a Russian rapprochement — so should we really cheer foreign policy hands who boast about frustrating that promise? But then on the other other hand, Trump’s personal behavior around Putin is, let’s be frank, super weird, in ways that make internal resistance more defensible.
Such uncertainty means that sustaining the combination that I’ve suggested — yes to prudent resistance to rash behavior, no to ideological resistance to populist policy — would require constant self-scrutiny among the people trying to manage this presidency from within.
And the most troubling thing about the anonymous op-ed — apart from the dubious judgment that inspired its writing — is that the author doesn’t seem to recognize this issue, or acknowledge any distinction between protecting America from Trump’s erratic personality and extra-constitutional whims and frustrating the agenda that won our president the White House.
An internal resistance that conflates those two missions may prevent certain disasters; let us hope it does. But it will not save the country or its party from populism; it will only make the next surge that much stronger, and ease the next Donald Trump’s ascent.