I had a long talk with an old friend the other day. We were in graduate school together. A year or so after earning our master’s degrees, we were living in Washington. I had a few freelance news stories and a bunch of fishing trips under my belt. My pal finished his Ph.D. and had a choice job. Any bank or business in the country would have snatched him up for big bucks. He could have gone for a comfortable academic career. He chose public service instead. It wasn’t a hard choice.
Many moons later, he is one of our most senior professionals in his field. Every day, all day, he shoulders immense responsibilities, sometimes matters of life and death.
My friend told me about the humility and the pride he felt having had the “honor and privilege” of briefing four presidents in the Oval Office.
The prospect of shaking President Donald Trump’s hand, he confessed, made him, to put it nicely, very, very uncomfortable.
I suspect the feeling is mutual.
If Trump ever shakes my friend’s hand, I imagine he will dismiss him as another bureaucrat who never made any big money — his measure of worth on earth.
Donald Trump does not pay respects for public service or public servants. He says he loves “our vets” a lot. But he routinely mocks the notion that government (and military) experts could know anything about anything. Insulting generals, diplomats, scientists and especially intelligence agencies intoxicates him. And he comforts the nation that his grenades aren’t a problem because Trump knows more than any of them on any topic. Trust me, I’ve got a gift. It’s beautiful. These guys will do what I say. Or else.
All new presidents have to handle policy disagreements with various pockets of the government, sometimes whole agencies. Military brass often was suspicious of liberal Democratic presidents and even Republicans who never served in the military. Professionals in the safety net agencies freaked when Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were elected. That is exactly how it should be. It’s an institutionalized process to balance power and protect deliberation.
When candidates become president, they assume a duty to lead the executive branch. Some presidents have worked hard to win over skeptics, some played tough and some never got it right.
No president I am aware of aggressively demeaned the federal workforce as a way to manage it — and pander to government-hating voters.
Ronald Reagan came close.
He had a standard line he loved to use, “Government is not the solution to our problem, it is our problem.” That wasn’t exactly a morale booster for a Foreign Service officer in the Congo or undercover DEA agent in Colombia. But Reagan was not snarky or mean. He didn’t insult individuals. He used unfortunate rhetoric to push his plan to shrink a fat government, eliminate unnecessary agencies and spur economic growth.
Donald Trump’s rhetoric and posture is a world apart, a whole different beast. His antics are unheard of.
This is proved by Trump’s overt campaign of disinformation and slander against the covert work of the country’s intelligence community. It is outrageous, vindictive and reckless. Trump’s comments and tweets aren’t just puerile insults but also false claims and made-up accusations. Coming from a president-elect, this comes off as unpatriotic and a kind of sabotage.
Trump’s jihad against the spies is a high-profile escapade, but Trump uses the same flame-thrower on other agencies and officials. Presumably this will continue when he’s in office. Imagine how he’d Twitter-torture a scientist who testified that vaccines don’t cause autism. “TOADY FOR BIG PHARMA, BIG SCANDAL! VERY DISHONEST. OVERRATED AT SCIENCE. SAD. HE BETTER WATCH IT, VERY POWERFUL PEOPLE UPSET. #DTS”
This will create a gridlock goldmine in the executive branch: The president explicitly asserts he has no trust or respect for the federal government while large numbers of public servants and whole agencies have subtly indicated they have no trust or respect for the new president.
Is this a recipe for disaster? I think not, though that may be wishful thinking.
I make two assumptions about the Trump administration: Congressional Republicans will rarely restrain or positively influence Trump unless they face obvious catastrophe in their next elections; also, congressional Democrats lack the backbone and skill to effectively work with or against Trump, depending on the issue.
If that’s how it plays out, only the “permanent government,” the maligned bureaucracies, the soldiers of public service will have the power to throw sand in the cheap gears of Trumpism.
Then it will be Trump who drowns in the swamp, a flourishing swamp full of clean water, native wildlife, a few poison plants, sure, but all protected by idealistic, patriotic park rangers and scientists.
It will be a beautiful thing, trust me.