Notice & Comment

Is there a Duty to Serve an Immoral President? A Taxonomy

A few weeks ago, in those bygone days when Sean Spicer reigned in the White House pressroom and Reince Priebus was White House Chief of Staff, I wrote an op-ed called the Case for Janet Yellen. In it, I explained why Janet Yellen should be her own successor at the Fed, for a variety of reasons, not least the healthy norm of cross-partisan appointment at the Fed that has been honored with one exception since the 1950s.

At the time, it seemed like important news, but, well, you know the rest: The Mooch, the resignations, a near-nuclear war with North Korea, an invasion of Venezuela?, the presidential defense of the KKK and neo-Nazis have made a debate about the finer points of Fed personnel seem almost quaint.

The maelstrom of unbelievable coverage has caused my friend Narayana Kocherlakota to say on Twitter that while he still believes Janet Yellen to be the best pick for Trump that she should reject any offer and prepare her resignation: President Trump’s imprimatur is too toxic, too likely to corrupt an otherwise extraordinary legacy.  I’m not sure I agree, but I’m not sure I disagree, which leads me to this question: is there a duty to serve an immoral president?

I can think of at least four kinds of people who will address this question. First, those who would beg the question and say there is no immorality here. To those–and there are many–this line of questioning isn’t relevant. The President they love is under siege, but his policies and actions are worth defending. I won’t pretend to understand their views about the President’s affections for Nazis and the KKK (or, more precisely, individual marchers at a KKK/neo-Nazi rally), but I assume that they see their duty to defend a morality that has not changed, but whose perception has. Call these the True Believers–I don’t think there is any point at which they would abandon the President.

Second, the Careerists. Maybe they are offended by this or that policy or action, but they only care because their legacy and reputations are at risk. If Charlottesville becomes the next Access Hollywood–an episode lodged deep into the psyches of those who oppose the president, but normalized if not forgotten by the rest–then the Careerists will stay put and try to salvage their reputations. I think Careerists are more amoral than True Believers, but there is a line somewhere: when they decide that they can’t salvage their reputations, or are very near that line, they will abandon him, write colorful and damning memoirs, and throw themselves to the chattering classes in hopes of a second act in public life down the road.

The last two categories are where the question becomes much more interesting, and much more difficult. The third are the Noseholding Public Servants. These are the people who joined Trump out of an initial sense of duty (no wonder that some of these are current or former military), familial loyalty, or maybe something else entirely. They are mortified and offended by what the president has done, but see resignation as a mechanism for filling their vacancies with more True Believers–those whose morality would embrace things like banning transgender people from the military or providing public comfort to neo-Nazis. And while many Never Trumpers on the left and right hope for a prompt resolution of this presidency, the wheels of impeachment or resignation move slowly. Remember that it was nearly a year after the Saturday Night Massacre that Richard Nixon finally resigned. For the Noseholders, there is much governance to be done, to say nothing of advancing a policy agenda. Who else will keep us from nuclear war or from invading Venezuela or launching a costly and pointless trade war with China if the Noseholders all leave? The Noseholders, then, are utilitarians: there may be lines that Trump can cross, but good governance is more important to them than a principled dissociation.

The last category is the Resigners. For many Democrats or other Never Trumpers, the idea of serving in the administration is anathema. There is no sense of duty or patriotism or certainly careerism that would prompt participation with the Trump Administration. But even for some Administration officials initially undeterred by Donald Trump, there are lines that he can cross where they would say “basta.” Where participation is implication. Where there is no plausible deniability. Where any further participation would be such a compromise of their moral principles that no amount of good governance or policy victories could compensate. The Resigners are deontological moralists.

As a descriptive matter, aside from the various advisory councils, there are vanishingly few Careerists or Resigners who see the President’s support of white supremacists as enough to prompt departure. This is stunning to me, not in any individual case but across the administration. There are hundreds of vacancies, to be sure, but enough staffers throughout the Executive Branch that I would expect more movement here.

As a prescriptive matter, I’m not sure what I would say to friends in the administration who are debating between the last three categories. Back to Narayana’s point about Janet Yellen, I think the agencies–including perhaps especially the Fed–are at enough of a remove that opting for Noseholding in the name of public service and good governance may not taint them with the brush of white supremacy. If that’s the case–and I’m cautious in concluding that it is–it prompts another question: is there a line? If so, where is it? Will Noseholders know it when they see it?

For those in the White House, whose day-to-day is not only about governance but about political and personal defense, I think the moral calculation is clearer. Noseholding seems harder to justify when the job itself is about defense of the indefensible. Careerism would point, it seems to me, in the same direction. At some point it seems appropriate to conclude that those close to the President who refuse to budge aren’t simply holding their noses, but are themselves True Believers.


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