Spoiler Alerts has argued at some length that Rex Tillerson should resign as secretary of state. But this raises an obvious question: Which Trump-compatible replacement should replace him? Is there someone who would simultaneously command Trump’s respect but also do the job well?
My answer would be that Trump should hire my current boss at the Fletcher School, Dean James Stavridis. As the former supreme commander of NATO, he definitely has the requisite diplomatic experience. He has the temperament: One of Jim’s strengths is that he knows a lot but is also keenly aware of what he does not know. Trump actually interviewed him for the position last December before selecting Tillerson. Most important, as a former four-star admiral, Stavridis would bring the necessary gravitas to the position. Trump might be willing to defer to him.
If Trump were to hire Stavridis, that would mean that general officers would occupy four critical national security positions: secretary of state, secretary of defense, national security adviser and chief of staff. That number could go up to five if Trump ever decided to find a replacement for John Kelly at Homeland Security. Such a move would exacerbate the concerns I expressed late last year about the abundance of military officials holding Cabinet rank. Appointing Mattis as secretary of defense was such a norm violation that it required an act of Congress to allow it.
Hiring Stavridis would erode a very important civil-military norm in American politics. And yet, because Trump is president, I would approve of it every day of the week and twice on Sundays.
One of the depressing facts of life in the Trump era is that Trump’s abrogation of political norms has triggered concomitant erosion of norms among those who oppose Trump. Harvard Law School professor Jack Goldsmith recently wrote about the phenomenon in the Atlantic. Goldsmith details all of Trump’s norm violations. He then goes on to suggest, however, that the more long-lasting concerns are the erosion of norms among his opponents: the bureaucracy, the intelligence agencies and particularly the mainstream media:
What happened to Marco Rubio on the campaign trail is now happening to a variety of American institutions. These institutions have risen up to check a president they fear. But in some instances, they have defied their own norms, and harmed themselves and the nation in the process. Unfortunately, many of these norm violations will be hard to reverse. …
Leaks are not new, but we have never seen anything like the daily barrage of leaks that have poured out of Trump’s executive branch. Not all of them have come from bureaucrats; Trump appointees have engaged in leaking too. But many of the leaks appear to have come from career civil servants who seek to discredit or undermine the president. And many involve types of information that have never been leaked before. In August, The Washington Post published complete transcripts of conversations Trump had had with the prime minister of Australia and the president of Mexico. These leaks were “unprecedented, shocking, and dangerous,” as David Frum wrote for The Atlantic’s website. “No leader will again speak candidly on the phone to Washington, D.C. — at least for the duration of this presidency, and perhaps for longer.” …
While Trumpism has been good for the media business, it has not been good for overall media credibility. An Emerson College poll in February indicated that more voters found Trump to be truthful than the news media, and a Suffolk University/USA Today poll in June concluded that the historically unpopular president still had a slightly higher favorability rating than the media. Trump is not just discrediting the mainstream news, but quickening changes in right-wing media as well. Fox News Channel always leaned right, but in the past year several of its programs have become open propaganda arms for Trump. And sharply partisan outlets like Breitbart News and The Daily Caller have grown in influence among conservatives.
Goldsmith’s concerns are valid, but there are some counterarguments that should be considered as well. The first is that the timing matters here. Even if norms are being bent or broken in response to President Trump, it is a response, not an instigation. Norms are worth husbanding, but not at the expense of catastrophic presidential decision-making. In his essay, Goldsmith justifiably praises hypocrisy as a political virtue. Civil society norm-breaking in the interest of preserving presidential norms strikes me as somewhat hypocritical but politically necessary.
Second, it is not obvious that the institutions resisting Trump are losing popularity because of any potential norm violations. As Matthew Yglesias points out, Trump’s reverse Midas touch is making Americans trust civil society again. According to Reuters:
[A Reuters/Ipsos opinion] poll of more than 14,300 people found that the percentage of adults who said they had a “great deal” or “some” confidence in the press rose to 48 percent in September from 39 percent last November. Earlier this year, Trump branded the entire industry as the “enemy of the American people.”
The percentage of those who said they had “hardly any” confidence in the press dropped to 45 percent from 51 percent over the same period.
This phenomenon might very well be an effect of partisan politics. But it suggests that these institutions can endure.
Third, I am less convinced than Goldsmith that the current erosion of norms among those resisting Trump persist after Trump exits the stage. If Trump’s successor campaigns in part on making America civil again, it is quite likely that other elements of civil society will reciprocate. Just as Trump triggers norm violations, an anti-Trump should be able to encourage norm repair.
Between the norm-breaking of civil society and the norm-breaking of the president, it’s the latter that still concerns me more. I mean, this is from this morning:
Why Isn't the Senate Intel Committee looking into the Fake News Networks in OUR country to see why so much of our news is just made up-FAKE!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 5, 2017
I share Goldsmith’s queasiness about some of the anti-Trump behavior that Trump has triggered with his vast array of norm violations. I am particularly queasy about the short-term political anomalies I am prepared to accept (Mattis as secretary of defense, bureaucracies slow-rolling presidential dictates) to make Trump as weak as he is. But for the short run, these are the best moves to make. A few months ago, Mattis implored U.S. troops to “hold the line until our country gets back to understanding and respecting each other.” I would implore the parts of American civil society appalled by Trump to resist his efforts to debase American values for as long as humanly possible.
The short-run cost of that resistance in eroded norms is far less than the long-run cost of appeasement.