Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, chief among the guardians of the rails. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)
Columnist

Now things are going off the rails.

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has announced his resignation. He accompanied it with a damning letter of protest:

My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held. Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.

Things previously were on the rails, we are now learning. When we remember the years 2017 and 2018, we will do so wistfully. “Things were on the rails then,” we will say. “Remember Scaramucci? Remember how organized and unchaotic the Trump White House was?” (I am picturing us huddled over a fire as we say this, watching the White House in the distance to see whether it has released the series of smoke signals that indicates war.)

“Why, Gen. Kelly once kept the door to the president’s office shut for two hours at a time.”

“One hour,” someone else around the fire will correct. “But it was still impressive.”

For now, we are living in the good times! Look around you. Take in deep lungfuls of the still-breathable air. A live bear is not in charge of the joint chiefs. Mueller is still investigating.

In the moment before the wind shifts, there is time to appreciate that only the one house down the road is on fire. Besides, you do not know the people in that house very well. And the men whose presence indicated that there were still rails did not seem altogether troubled by those small, distant blazes.

We will think of this as a time when there were rails. Yes, the White House spewed forth corruption, and it took the word of Saudi Arabia over its own intelligence agencies on murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Children were placed into cages. There were fires. The weeks after Hurricane Maria cost hundreds of lives. Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter. The president still careened around the world stage like a cannon on a ship’s deck that had come loose from its moorings. He fired his attorney general.

But these were all, we will soon learn, the characteristics of a time when things were not that bad. The children were caged for their own good, after all, and the fires were simply the fault of those who failed to rake. You could tell things were good because there were still older, statesmanlike rats on the ship. They are going now, and it will just be the regular rats.

Soon Ivanka and Jared will be running everything, in a cunning assortment of hats. Jared will do different voices. A coat rack whose knowledge of world history is still a little threatening to the president will be put in charge of the national defense. The Federal Reserve chair will be an actual chair — perhaps inflatable. The chief of staff will be the flag once used to salute Ryan Zinke’s arrivals and departures. Congress, attempting investigations, will be lost in the thick, mephitic cloud of scandal, dodging rogue tweets as they come in. Stephen Miller will be there. Instead of running like a well-oiled machine, the White House will run like a poorly oiled machine.

We will look back on this as, if not the good time, the time when the unknown bad thing had not yet happened. Many other alarming things could have gone wrong in all this time. But the Trump administration still had people working to stop them, sometimes flinging their bodies over an unexploded Fox News chyron that could have resulted in alarming troop deployments, or eating an entire memo. And the good news was that so long as they did this, pausing occasionally to write op-eds so we would know to thank them, this much worse thing did not occur.

I do wish, a little, they would be more specific in their warnings about this dire thing. I would like to know what kind of preparations to make for next year. Canned goods? Should I go visit the Yellowstone caldera now? Store up memories of life in the now-time, with rails? I would very much like to have seen these rails. If this was life with them, I do not like the thought of going without them.

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