September 10, 2018
A secret cabal within Trump's cabinet asks us to trust that allowing them to govern from the shadows is our best option now. What could possibly go wrong?
It goes without saying that we live in strange times.
We live in a time in which the unprecedented has now become routine, when we find ourselves rolling our eyes at things that once left us flabbergasted. We’ve grown accustomed to record-breaking climate change, daily political scandals and upheaval, and a rapidly-shifting economic landscape.
Yet even in these times, the anonymous op-ed published last week by the New York Times and eerily titled “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration,” breaks new ground.
One one hand, the piece isn’t all that shocking because it merely corroborates the erratic behavior, petulance and impulsiveness many have observed in President Trump and which has recently been documented in graphic detail in Bob Woodward’s new bombshell book, “Fear: Trump in the White House.”
On the other hand, the op-ed is truly unprecedented, not only because it’s written by an unnamed individual claiming to be a member of the president’s senior White House staff, but also because it challenges our fundamental notions of how government should function in strange times.
If the author is to be believed, a cadre of White House officials has unilaterally taken steps to save Trump from himself, and salvage our country in the process, by diligently working to oppose the president’s “worst inclinations.” Given the chaos that seems to run rampant in the administration, it likely comes as a relief to many to learn that “there are adults in the room” who are “trying to do what’s right even when Donald Trump won’t.” It may even be oddly reassuring to know that efforts are being made to curb the impulses of a president who is all too often his own worst enemy (even if these assurances come from a person without a name or a face).
That’s what a first read of the op-ed gives us.
But when we "unplug" from the partisan rhetoric and media chatter, a different picture emerges. When we take a deeper dive into the words of a senior cabinet member who is actively working to “secretly steer the administration in the right direction until — one way or another — it’s over” and to “frustrate parts of Trump’s agenda” by essentially creating a “two-track” presidency,” cold comfort slowly gives way to something else: creeping unease.
If what the anonymous White House insider has shared with us is anywhere close to the truth, then the implications for our system of government are profound, indeed.
For the better part of his presidency, Trump has pushed what has been widely discredited as an outrageous conspiracy theory, claiming that hidden forces at various levels of government, whom he has repeatedly referred to as the “deep state,” are actively plotting to destabilize his presidency and “force him out of office.” By any measure, the allegation of a “deep state,” operating within our government and without our knowledge, smacks of the kind of paranoid delusion that only confirms growing concern that Trump has fallen into “full-blown hysteria.”
The suggestion that rogue elements would have the power or inclination to clandestinely derail the agenda of the Commander-in-Chief, on behalf of American citizens or for any other purpose, seems nothing less than unthinkable.
But last week, we were offered a window into the unthinkable.
The New York Times has now given us reason to believe that individuals within the White House are steering U.S. policy, secretly and without the knowledge of the president, and sabotaging the agenda that nearly 63 million Americans (rightly or wrongly) voted Trump into office to deliver. We don’t know who these cabinet officials are; we don’t know if they are working alone within the White House, or with individuals outside it; and we don’t how long they have been active.
The only thing we know for certain is that they have now decided to make themselves known.
The op-ed’s author must have intuited how disturbing this revelation might be to the average American, because they go to great lengths to assure us that these “unsung heroes” of Trump’s administration work not on behalf of “the so-called deep state” that Trump fears; rather, they are instruments of the “steady state.” And the anonymous author makes it clear that it is the invisible “steady state,” not our President, that deserves our trust.
How committed are the members of this “steady state” to taking the actions it deems necessary to “preserve our democratic institutions?” According to the anonymous cabinet member, the group held serious discussions about invoking the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office due to “disability,” a process deemed more complex and difficult than impeachment of a president for high crimes and misdemeanors. Unquestionably, the 25th Amendment is an extreme and rarely used constitutional tool that “is truly reserved for unique and dire circumstances.”
For example, the 25th Amendment was invoked in the moments immediately following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and when President Ronald Reagan underwent colon cancer surgery and allowed Vice-President George H.W. Bush to act as president in his stead for eight hours. In other words, it is a step taken only under highly exigent circumstances in the face of a clear and present disability of the Commander-in-Chief.
And it’s a step that the “steady state” actively considered “early in Trump’s presidency” (how early, we aren’t told).
Why does any of this matter?
Because whether you’re a Democrat, a Republican, or don’t belong to any party, whether you think Trump is going to make America Great Again or send us all to hell in a dump truck, the existence of a “steady state” operating in secrecy and willing to take this kind of extreme action against a president early in their term raises unsettling questions that transcend politics and strike at the heart of the representative government that we’re told we still have.
First and foremost, we need to ask ourselves: what is the agenda of this “steady state”? Ostensibly, it claims to be acting in alignment with a large chunk of the bi-partisan electorate. The tens of millions who feel strongly that Russians meddled in the 2016 election and believe they should be held accountable will no doubt be comforted by the fact that the “steady state” has relentlessly pursued sanctions, despite Trump’s objections.
But an inquiring mind can’t help but wonder what other items are on the to-do list of this secret group of White House staff. Based on its moniker, should we assume this cabal is dedicated to maintaining the status quo in order to keep things, well…steady? And if so, steady for whom? What does this mean for those who are looking for significant (and perhaps even radical) change in a government that increasingly seems to serve the interests of few at the expense of many? What if this secret group determines that a “steady state” is best served by implementing policies that continue to place corporate interests above those of working Americans?
Moreover, what if this invisible arm of the executive branch decides to pursue other goals that run afoul of a majority of voters, across the political spectrum, without announcing its intentions in an op-ed? What if, for example, it sees the need to keep expanding the surveillance state beyond the scope that most Americans are willing to accept? Are we supposed to simply trust people without names or faces to “do the right thing?"
Which begs the next set of questions: even if we’re on the same page with the “steady state” agenda today, how do we hold these covert heroes accountable if their agenda diverges from that of the majority in the future? If we don’t even know who these people are, how can we possibly know when (or if) an election removes them from power or authority? Might they turn up in other presidential administrations and work against an agenda we support or toward goals we oppose, without our knowledge?
Ultimately, all of these questions converge into one: is it appropriate for our government to be secretly steered by people we have not elected and who choose not to identify themselves?
I believe the answer is emphatically “No.” Governance by anonymity should never be an option.
It’s dangerous and completely antithetical to a democratic republic, not only because it robs voters of knowledge, but also because it potentially denies them the power to change the country’s direction. Put another way, if we don’t know who’s really steering our government, then we the people don’t really have the power to change our government. In these unprecedented times, even as we vehemently disagree with one another and the person charged with leading us, we must strive to adhere to the principles upon which our government is based. Even when it pains us, even when the road is steep. As President Kennedy admonished the American Newspaper Publishers Association on April 27, 1961:
“The very word ‘secrecy’ is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths and secret proceedings. We decided long ago that the dangers of excessive and unwarranted concealment of pertinent facts far outweighed the dangers which are cited to justify it…even today, there is little value in insuring the survival of our nation if our traditions do not survive with it.”
When we oppose the agenda of any president, the proper recourse is to mobilize the electorate to remove that person through free and open elections, or through impeachment, if necessary and appropriate. But to allow an unidentified group to clandestinely carry out this task on our behalf is a far greater threat to our system of government than any inflammatory Tweet or ridiculous antic we’ve endured from Trump.
The “steady state” that revealed itself last week invites Americans to yield to extreme measures in strange times to assuage our fear. Yet as seductive as this invitation is, I believe we must resist. The “steady state” does not, and should not, receive our approval or trust. It does not deserve our support. And we must not allow our reactions to Trump’s dysfunctions to legitimize greater dysfunctions within our government.
If we allow rogue elements to undermine a president for the sake of serving our interests today, then we open the door for other groups to undermine any president and potentially work against our interests in the future.
If we allow those who operate in the shadows to “serve” us and embrace the idea that our government should resort to secrecy in order to preserve itself, then we no longer have a government worth preserving.
If we support the efforts of this self-proclaimed "steady state," then we all pay the ultimate price, whether or not we voted for Trump. And it’s a debt we will continue to pay long after he leaves office.