There are some such as New York Times columnist, Ross Douthat, who have argued that morally decent conservatives have a duty to stay on and/or accept positions in the Donald Trump presidential administration to counter or steer away the administration from toxic or dangerous policies and actions. While there is a certain logic to the argument on the surface, others make the case that to serve Trump is to set one's self down the road for moral evil and becoming subsumed into trying to justify normalizing the unacceptable. One need only look at history and those who tried to serve and accommodate the policies of figures such as Lenin, Stalin and Hitler to see where service to an administration can take one. Two different pieces make the case against working in a Trump administration. One ids a op-ed in the Washington Post. The other is a piece in Just Security. First are highlights from the Post op-ed:
[T]he episode has caused me to change my mind about recommending that conservatives serve in the administration, albeit with a firm view in their minds of what would cause them to quit. This was a tipping point. The tenor of the Trump team, from everything I see, read and hear, is such that, for a garden-variety Republican policy specialist, service in the early phase of the administration would carry a high risk of compromising one’s integrity and reputation.In a normal transition to a normal administration, there’s always disorder. There are the presidential friends and second cousins, the flacks and the hangers-on who flame out in the first year or two. There are the bad choices — the abusive bosses, the angry ideologues and the sheer dullards. You accept the good with the bad and know that there will be stupid stuff going on, particularly at the beginning. Things shake out. Even if you are just blocking errors, it is a contribution.
This time may be different. Trump was not a normal candidate, the transition is not a normal transition, and this will probably not be a normal administration. The president-elect is surrounding himself with mediocrities whose chief qualification seems to be unquestioning loyalty. He gets credit for becoming a statesman when he says something any newly elected president might say . . . . and then reverts to tweeting against demonstrators and the New York Times. By all accounts, his ignorance, and that of his entourage, about the executive branch is fathomless. It’s not even clear that he accepts that he should live in the White House rather than in his gilt-smeared penthouse in New York.
In the best of times, government service carries with it the danger of compromising your principles. Here, though, we may be in for something much worse. The canary in the coal mine was not merely the selection of Stephen K. Bannon for the job previously filled by John Podesta and Karl Rove, that of counselor to the president and chief strategist. Rather, the warning signs came from the Republican leaders excusing and normalizing this sinister character — and those who then justified the normalizers.
One bad boss can be endured. A gaggle of them will poison all decision-making. They will turn on each other. No band of brothers this: rather the permanent campaign as waged by triumphalist rabble-rousers and demagogues, abetted by people out of their depth and unfit for the jobs they will hold, gripped by grievance, resentment and lurking insecurity. Their mistakes — because there will be mistakes — will be exceptional.
My bottom line: Conservative political types should not volunteer to serve in this administration, at least for now. They would probably have to make excuses for things that are inexcusable and defend people who are indefensible. At the very least, they should wait to see who gets the top jobs.
So what should the policy community do for now? Do what you can do in other venues, and remember that this too will pass, and some day a more normal kind of administration will either emerge or replace this one. Your country still needs you — just not yet.
The lengthy piece in Just Security takes a similar tone with more emphasis on the moral suicide that service in a Trump administration will likely entail. Here are excerpts:
Two of my friends, both of them principled and talented conservatives, told me they were approached by members of the Trump team about possible posts in the incoming administration. Both of them find Trump horrifying and did not vote for him. Both had the same initial reaction: No way. Both would have been willing, maybe honored, to take posts in a different Republican administration. All this was before the election.Now, both recognize that they face an ethical dilemma: If the transition team approaches them again, should they say yes?
A similar dilemma faces career lawyers in government service who object to the new president and fear what they might be asked to do. Should they look for new jobs? As for law students and other lawyers considering government service, including anti-Trump Republicans: Is joining the administration a moral obligation, in order to fight for the rule of law and fact-based decisions in the administration of an erratic president? Or is it an unacceptable moral sell-out? Should you go into the administration because they need your voice? Or is exit, not voice, the principled option?
That makes the dilemma worse, and so far, unfortunately, the signs are not good. Trump may be in the process of appointing some of the most extreme people in public life to high positions. Douthat counts on the Senate to deny confirmation – but what if the Senate does no such thing? In any event, it seems likely that the new administration will be the most right-wing in U.S. history, more than either the Reagan or George W. Bush administrations. Perhaps it will be more right-wing than Trump himself. And that, unless you share those views, is a problem.
The nightmare scenario is that Trump and his allies aim at an authoritarian Big Man presidency that actively targets political opponents – tangibly, not just rhetorically.
[M]y answer to the moral question is straightforward. Don’t go into the administration. If you’re in it when things start going south, get out. Don’t tell yourself you can tame the beast, because the beast will tame you. And don’t let the words “lesser evil” pass your lips. You will be fooling yourself.
In a powerful essay written half a century ago, Hannah Arendt warned about lesser evils (pp. 35-36):
If you are confronted with two evils, thus the argument runs, it is your duty to opt for the lesser one, whereas it is irresponsible to refuse to choose altogether. Those who denounce the moral fallacy of this argument are usually accused of a germ-proof moralism which is alien to political circumstances, of being unwilling to dirty their hands. …
Politically, the weakness of the argument has always been that those who choose the lesser evil forget very quickly that they chose evil. …
Why do they forget? It isn’t hard to fathom. Once you are inside, your frame of reference changes. The work is challenging and invigorating and cutting-edge. You see that many of the people you’re working with are decent and likable. You tell yourself that decent people like these wouldn’t do anything indecent. Gradually your moral compass aligns with theirs . . . . You lose your sense of outrage, which is, after all, a feeling we experience when we see something abnormal. Once the abnormal becomes routine, outrage fades.
And above all, you reassure yourself of your own decency because you can contrast yourself with the real radicals, the true believers. They’re right down the hall.
[W]hen you stay in your job, and perform lesser evils, you are supporting the administration, even if in your own mind you abhor it. Your own mind is irrelevant: if you participate, you support. . . . In the nightmare scenario, you are deluding yourself to think you can turn the train, or even slow it down. Maybe you could in an administration committed to the rule of law. But that is not the nightmare scenario we are talking about.
These concepts underscore my position: #NotMyPresident.What about the large majority of public employees who are not directly complicit in wrongdoing, but for that very reason have no ability to mitigate it? Arendt’s warning that participation is support applies to them as well. Not only do they keep the enterprise going, their participation normalizes it in the eyes of their colleagues and the larger public. They cannot plead “lesser evils.” If they have a realistic, non-ruinous exit option, they should take it. . . . When it comes to rotten compromises of your principles, exit takes precedence over voice and loyalty. Exit doesn’t necessarily mean resigning, although it may. It certainly means refusing to participate.