The mystery Trump administration official’s op-ed piece declaring President Trump mentally unfit to serve, combined with the startling revelations along the same lines that people in his orbit shared with Bob Woodward, have driven Trump into a frenzy and hinted at much worse to come.
Both also raise a question: Is there really a “resistance” inside the administration, quietly and heroically toiling away at great professional risk, to protect the country and alert us all to the dangers Trump poses, until the storm has passed?
I call B.S. If anything, the sum total of the revelations offered, while valuable in some respects, reveals the sharp limits on which Trumpian impulses these greatly alarmed patriots discern to be seriously damaging to the country. In so doing, it actually reveals just how deeply insufficient these constraining efforts really are. If the people around Trump think this sort of display will insulate them from any post-Trump reckoning, we’d better make sure it fails ignominiously.
The New York Times piece, which is being widely treated as an internal resistance blueprint and marker of an important historical moment, is by an official who claims to be one of many “working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.” But which agenda items, and which inclinations, exactly?
The faceless adviser’s most specific complaints are about Trump’s conciliatory approach to Russia and his trade policies. Beyond this, the lament is mostly that Trump is temperamentally unstable and fundamentally anti-democratic. He is “erratic” and prone to “repetitive rants.” His attacks on the press are destructive to democracy, and he is badly damaging our “discourse.”
Perhaps the most pointed charge is directed at Trump’s “amorality.” As the piece says: “Anyone who works with him knows he is not moored to any discernible first principles that guide his decision making.”
Except in a sense, Trump absolutely does have “first principles,” and these are precisely the problem. Among them are racism and white nationalism; the prioritization of self-enrichment over all else, even extending to a total lack of concern about foreign sabotage of our democracy, simply because he was its beneficiary; and the corrupt, intertwined convictions that law enforcement is merely an instrument of his political will and that he and his cronies should be protected from institutional accountability at all costs, no matter what damage is done along the way.
These do not come in for condemnation. Nor do the policies and actions they have given rise to — policies and actions that are inflicting an untold human toll and great damage on the country. In this sense, the claim that Trump is “amoral” lacks meaningful moral content, and the assertion that Trump is “anti-democratic” lacks meaningful pro-democratic content.
My point is not that this great patriot is required to agree with me on these other criticisms of Trump. Rather, it’s that his or her selection of which “parts of his agenda” and “inclinations” to sound the alarm about — and which to leave out — embody a specific vision of what precisely about Trump constitutes a threat to the country, and what does not.
In this sense, what is really revealed here is this supposed internal resistance’s shortcomings.
Welcome to the resistance
Thus, this resistance agrees that Trump’s impulses are fundamentally anti-democratic, but this doesn’t include Trump’s destruction of guardrails against self-dealing, and we don’t have a clear sense of how objectionable this resistance finds his ceaseless attacks on special counsel Robert S. Mueller’s probe and the damage they’ve done to law enforcement morale.
This resistance agrees that Trump’s rhetorical degradations have “allowed our discourse to be stripped of civility,” but we aren’t informed just how objectionable it finds Trump’s nonstop and deliberate racist incitement. Even if this internal resistance agrees with Trump’s stepped-up deportations of longtime residents and thinly veiled Muslim ban out of genuine concern about immigration levels, does it object to this agenda’s white-nationalist and Islamophobic foundation or to the administration’s efforts to disguise it with fake policy rationales steeped in bottomless bad faith?
We can surmise these things make the internal resistance uncomfortable, and we know Trump’s aides have at times tried to steer him away from them. Why not explicitly sound the alarm about them as the ongoing threats to the country they really are?
Similarly, many revelations about Trump that Woodward ferreted out betray concern largely about Trump’s unstable temperament and capacity for sober decision-making. No question, these revelations are enormously important and cause for great concern. And yes, there are exceptions: Trump’s advisers tried to tamp down his public displays of racism. But again, what is left out is telling.
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this internal resistance doesn’t think these other things — the corruption, the bad-faith white-nationalist agenda and the immense human damage it is inflicting, the authoritarian attacks on our institutions — are as damaging to the country, or at least as worthy of sounding the alarm about and acting to constrain, as, say, his trade policies are.
What all this really signals is how those who are currently enabling Trump will try to circumscribe the post-Trump reckoning to come. As Chris Hayes notes, this emerging blueprint of the internal resistance is really an “insurance policy” to “preserve the reputation of the GOP’s entire political and governing class,” insulating them when “things get much worse.”
If and when this reckoning comes, it will be on us to make sure that all these things that do not seriously concern this “resistance” form an important component of that reckoning.