Admittedly, we fled town for the Inauguration.
Quite apart from the security headaches, the road closures, and the not-inconsiderable prospect of violent demonstrations the day of, or the days after the event, the prospect of it filled me with disgust. I wanted to be far away from the pleasant city that is our national capital. Donald J. Trump has repeatedly revealed himself as a lying, crooked, narcissistic ignoramus, incapable of generous thoughts or deeds, indeed, incapable of seeing beyond himself at all. The idea of that man living in Lincoln’s house is nauseating.
But he is the President, so what is one to do? More particularly, what are conservative intellectuals to do?
The most important thing is to speak the truth, indeed, to become somewhat fanatical on the subject. That means, to be sure, acknowledging such good as he or his administration may do—increased defense spending, a smack at excessive regulation, and stopping the persecution of the Little Sisters of the Poor or charter schools. More important will be calling him out every time he or his underlings lie: every time he says he has a plan when he does not, every time he jeers at a hero and denies having said any such thing, every time he claims to have created jobs to which others gave birth, or denies an inflammatory statement that he did make. And it means taking on the Reince Priebuses and Kellyanne Conways when they lie at 11 a.m. to cover up the outrageous remarks their boss tweeted out six hours before.
Trump lies because it is in his nature to lie. One suspects that there is nothing inside this man that quivers, however slightly, at an untruth. It is not uncommon for politicians, to a greater extent than most people, to believe what they want to believe, or to change their take on reality depending on what is convenient for them. With Trump, however, this will to believe is pathological: his psyche is so completely besotted by Trump that there is no room for anything, or anybody else.
We will not change him—no one can. His children may be able to soften the edges and his most trusted advisers may deflect him off his erratic courses, but nothing will teach him gravitas, magnanimity, or wisdom. Until he is impeached, thrown out of office in four years, succumbs to illness, or lasts through eight years, he is what we have learned he is, and will remain so. The beginning of wisdom will be to treat his office with respect, but him with none, because it will achieve nothing, and because as a human being he deserves none. He will remain erratic, temperamental, vengeful, and perhaps most of all, deeply insecure. A man who mocks John McCain, denounces Gold Star parents, snarls at an actor who spoofs him, and makes fun of a crippled reporter is someone whose core is empty, and whose need for approbation is unlimited because the void within him is so complete.
Such is Trump. What of his underlings? His Cabinet officials are, after all, by and large Republican normal—some very good, some mediocre, some simply odd. All of his political subordinates either know or will discover that the corruption of power works not by making you do or say outrageous things (at first), but rather by inducing you to persistently shade the truth. They will, for example, find themselves pretending that we have a coherent policy toward Europe when we do not. They will excuse an unhealthy and possibly sinister relationship with Vladimir Putin as an exercise in realpolitik.
They will tell themselves that they have gone to work for the man because they think they can affect him; they will learn—or more likely, their friends and associates on the outside will observe—that actually, he is affecting them. Very few will resign in outrage, because the compromises to their integrity will creep up on them. As Sir Thomas More puts it in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, they will be like the man who, having taken an oath, is “holding his own self in his own hands, like water” and when he opens his fingers, “needn’t hope to find himself again.” They will try to open their fingers just a little bit, and it will not work: the water will cascade out. Many of them will never find themselves again, but will instead spend the rest of their careers making excuses for things that once upon a time they understood were inexcusable.
There will be exceptions: military men mostly, I suspect. Jim Mattis and John Kelly have seen the worst and the finest in human nature; contact with the likes of Trump will not defile them. Then again, there is General Flynn, the fine intelligence officer whose life in politics caused him to lead hysterical chants of “Lock her up!” There may be younger people who come through cleanly, mostly in corners of the government where they can avoid the pitch that will stick to others higher up. And no doubt, there will indeed be selfless patriots simply stepping up to the plate who swallow their disgust for a time but feel its sour taste and do not let it dissipate.
All of them, sooner or later, will find themselves at dinner parties where someone will say, “Donald Trump is a louse. He cheats people, he is a bully, he knows nothing, cares little for our law or our history, and he is ruining the reputation of his office and our country. And those are not opinions: they are demonstrable facts.” The table will go silent as heads turn towards the political appointee at the table, and he or she will have to say something. And lying in bed the next morning, they will have to reflect on what they said the night before. And they will strain to explain it all to their grandchildren twenty years from now.
It would be unjust and unreasonable to hound political appointees to this administration when they go in, or to persecute them when they go out. The reputational hazard they will run is real, however, and some of them will eventually regret having succumbed to the lures of ambition or the conceit of self-value that brought them in. But in any case, our hope or desire to encourage the best of them should not cause us to cut any of them any slack. No one who backed Trump has any excuse for being surprised by what he does; no one who joins his administration can ever be allowed to claim that they did so in ignorance. We all know who and what he is.
And the rest of us? “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” goes the old saw, and it is truer than ever. Churchill, as always, best laid out the right frame of mind. “Never give in. Never, never, never. Never yield in any way, great or small, large or petty, except to convictions of honor and good sense.”
The age of Trump will pass. The institutions will contain him and the laws will restrain him if enough people care about both, and do not yield to fear of him and whatever leverage he tries to exert from his mighty office. He may summon up internet trolls and rioters, attempt to sic the IRS or the FBI on his opponents, or simply harass individuals from the Oval Office. But political history tells us that would-be authoritarians usually come to unpleasant ends, their moments pass, and the mobs that cheered them on will come to denounce them just as vehemently. Trump has started the process of his administration’s self-destruction by repeatedly and gratuitously alienating one group after another—the intelligence community, journalists, and African Americans for starters, and that is just in the few weeks before his inauguration. He will continue in ways we cannot yet imagine.
This will be a slogging match until the end, however. That being so, as the authorities pick up the trash, dismantle the bleachers, and process those arrested for disorderly conduct, I will come back to Washington. There, like many others, I plan to stand ready to offer praise when it is deserved, but mostly to oppose and expose, to contradict and stand up, without apology, without compromise, and without hesitation. Whatever company I find in that enterprise, I have no doubt that it will be infinitely superior to any that will be found in the White House mess.