They have it all wrong. Your federal bureaucracy under this president? Call it “The Complacent State” instead.
Like many in my cohort, I came into the government inspired by a president who convinced me there was still some truth to the gospel of American exceptionalism. A child of immigrants from South Korea, I also felt a duty to the society that welcomed my parents and allowed me and my siblings to thrive.
Over three tours abroad, I worked to spread what I believed were American values: freedom, fairness and tolerance. But more and more I found myself in a defensive stance, struggling to explain to foreign peoples the blatant contradictions at home.
In Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, I spoke of American openness and friendship at consulate events as my country carried out mass deportations and failed thousands of “dreamers.” I attended celebrations of Black History Month at our embassy in Lisbon as black communities in the United States demanded justice for Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray and the victims of the mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. And in Vancouver, I touted the strength of the United States’ democracy at the consulate’s 2016 election-night party as a man who campaigned on racism, misogyny and wild conspiracy theories became president-elect.
Since then, I have seen Trump assert the moral equivalence of violent white nationalists and those who oppose them, denigrate immigrants from “shithole countries” and separate children from their parents at the border, only to place them in squalid detention centers.
But almost three years since his election, what I have not seen is organized resistance from within. To the contrary, two senior Foreign Service officers admonished me for risking my career when I signed an internal dissent cable against the ban on travelers from several majority-Muslim countries in January 2017. Among my colleagues at the State Department, I have met neither the unsung hero nor the cunning villain of Deep State lore. If the resistance does exist, it should be clear by this point that it has failed.
Instead, I am part of the Complacent State.
The Complacent State sighs when the president blocks travel by Muslim immigrants; shakes its head when he defends Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman; averts its gaze from images of children in detention camps. Then it complies with orders.
Every day, we refuse visas based on administration priorities. We recite administration talking points on border security, immigration and trade. We plan travel itineraries, book meetings and literally hold doors open for the appointees who push Trump’s toxic agenda around the world.
So when I read a recent New York Times op-ed calling for the public shaming of the “midlevel functionaries who make the system run,” I squirmed in my seat. We rank-and-file, like the Justice Department lawyer who recently endured public scrutiny for defending the administration’s terrible treatment of detained children, don’t like to be called out. And when we are, we shrink behind a standard argument — that we are career officials serving nonpartisan institutions.
We should be named and shamed. But how should we respond? One thing I agree with the conspiracy theorists about: The Deep State, if it did exist, would be wrong. Ask to read the commission of any Foreign Service officer, and you’ll see that we are hired to serve “during the pleasure of the President of the United States.” That means we must serve this very partisan president.
Or else we should quit.
I’m ashamed of how long it took me to make this decision. My excuse might be disappointing, if familiar to many of my colleagues: I let career perks silence my conscience. I let free housing, the countdown to a pension and the prestige of representing a powerful nation overseas distract me from ideals that once seemed so clear to me. I can’t do that anymore.
My son, born in El Paso on the American side of that same Rio Grande where the bodies of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his daughter were discovered, in the same city where 22 people were just killed by a gunman whose purported “manifesto” echoed the inflammatory language of our president, turned 7 this month. I can no longer justify to him, or to myself, my complicity in the actions of this administration. That’s why I choose to resign.