President Trump’s disdain for America (“There are a lot of killers. We get a lot of killers. What, you think our country’s so innocent?”), for the free press, for an independent judiciary, for our allies and for the details of governance pose challenges to Congress and the American people of a magnitude we have never seen with previous presidents. Trump has instituted a chaotic arrangement in the White House where multiple power centers, each headed by someone with zero experience in government or in foreign policy (Stephen K. Bannon, Jared Kushner, Reince Priebus), attempt to undercut and intrude upon the prerogatives of Cabinet secretaries. Trump’s penchant for unilateralism, erratic and contradictory statements and irrational beliefs (e.g., the Chinese are “beating” us at trade) raise particular concerns for GOP House and Senate leaders. Trump’s policy proposals (such as they are) tend to be irrelevant to our current economic challenges (cutting top individual tax rates), counterproductive (a trade war) or imaginary (a cheaper, better, more flexible, more extensive health-care system) — or all three.
So what is to be done? We urge both an “inside” strategy and an “outside” strategy.
On the inside, Cabinet secretaries and their employees can systematically limit or eliminate the influence of Bannon and other know-nothing nationalists pushing the noxious brew usually dispensed by right-wing European parties. Cabinet secretaries can seek confirmation directly from the president of controversial directives, making certain Bannon is not freelancing. (The New York Times reports the president was “not fully briefed” on the executive order he signed that added Bannon to the National Security Council.) That should be the position of every single Cabinet secretary: Don’t assume Bannon has presidential authorization to extend his influence or direct unprecedented and rash ideas. Moreover, Cabinet secretaries need to have each other’s back so that they form a united front when going up against Bannon.
Beyond the president’s top advisers, no political appointee and permanent civil servant can lie to Congress, to their secretary or to the public. Not even a little bit. If asked to fabricate, change, shade or conceal facts the answer must be no. They also are obligated to reveal improper demand(s). They cannot defend the indefensible. (America does not have “killers” in office like Vladimir Putin.) Rather, they must use every avenue, including inspectors general and complete responses to Freedom of Information Act requests to protect the integrity of their work and serve the interests of the country. In short, their loyalty is not to the president but to the Constitution, duly passed laws and the country. We find it hard to imagine how anyone in good conscience could work under a president who equates America to Russia or who blatantly disregards the Constitution (in particular the Emoluments Clause), but if someone chooses to do so he must not become apologists for Trump’s grotesque ideology or enablers of his authoritarian style of governance.
Equally as important as the resistance within the bureaucracy, efforts outside government and outside the Beltway can serve to loosen Trump’s stranglehold over his own party. Back in the summer of 2009, Democratic lawmakers faced energized, determined opposition at town halls when Obamacare was under consideration. Now, lawmakers may get an earful from constituents about their subservience to Trump and pursuit of wrongheaded policies. The Post reported over the weekend:
Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.), one of the relatively few members of Congress who has held public town hall meetings in 2017, was beset by protesters in the city of Roseville, Calif. More than 1,000 people gathered in front of a venue that could seat 200, and many of those who got inside protested McClintock, a conservative who represents one of the state’s few safe Republican seats, for favoring the president’s executive orders on refugees and the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
Other protests were in seen in Colorado, New York and Nebraska. On Feb. 9, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) holds a town meeting where constituents have the opportunity to challenge his refusal to investigate Trump’s conflicts of interest and flagrant disregard for the Emoluments Clause. Peaceful protest and direct engagement with lawmakers, especially in their own districts, can incentivize members of Congress to disregard party loyalty. In other words, political survival usually beats out leadership pleas to stick with unpopular policies.
Trump, already historically unpopular, will lose even more support as he lashes out at opponents, loses legislative and court battles and thumbs his nose at protests. Seeing the largest crowds are not on his side, he and his followers may become disheartened. (We find it significant that Trump was compelled to cancel a visit to Wisconsin when protests were threatened.)
If Trump opponents, Democrats and Republicans alike, can keep up their enthusiasm for confrontation and translate that into votes and new candidates (both Republicans to primary incumbents and Democrats to challenge them in general elections) in 2018, Trump’s power can be curtailed. In the meantime, conscientious public servants inside government can forestall disaster, or at least expose it, and voters can demand their representatives denounce and stop Trump’s outrageous initiatives. Collectively, an engaged citizenry can defend democratic norms, truth, respect for the Constitution and simple decency.