When President Trump first took office, there was a minor panic about the fact that a number of his appointees had read and recommended Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Judging from the most recent controversy, it looks like not enough of them have read it, because the administration’s self-designated Atlases are not shrugging.
This news comes from two sources. Bob Woodward’s latest book on the latest president claims that Trump’s “closest aides have taken extraordinary measures in the White House to try to stop what they saw as his most dangerous impulses, going so far as to swipe and hide papers from his desk so he wouldn’t sign them.” Then the New York Times published an anonymous op-ed from a “senior official in the Trump administration” claiming that many of them are “working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.”
From the White House to executive branch departments and agencies, senior officials will privately admit their daily disbelief at the commander in chief’s comments and actions. Most are working to insulate their operations from his whims.
Meetings with him veer off topic and off the rails, he engages in repetitive rants, and his impulsiveness results in half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions that have to be walked back….
The erratic behavior would be more concerning if it weren’t for unsung heroes in and around the White House. Some of his aides have been cast as villains by the media. But in private, they have gone to great lengths to keep bad decisions contained to the West Wing, though they are clearly not always successful….
This isn’t the work of the so-called deep state. It’s the work of the steady state.
This, the official concludes, is the “quiet resistance” of “people choosing to put [their] country first.” Of course, if it’s so quiet, then why write about it in the New York Times?
The op-ed set off a firestorm of speculation about who wrote it, what his or her motives are, and whether this “quiet resistance” undermines our constitutional system. But the first and biggest issue should be whether or not this portrait of the president and his erratic decision-making is true. Given what we know about Donald Trump’s personality, his style of expression, his way of speaking in interviews, his frequent reversals of policy and rhetoric, his penchant for lying, and his whole method of thinking, we certainly have to regard it as plausible, even likely. If you don’t, trust me, you are in the minority and quite possibly in a bubble.
As for myself, I once briefly worked, some years ago, for a man who was exactly like Trump in most of these respects, and I recognize everything described here. This is what the people around him did, constantly managing his impulses to avoid disaster to the larger organization. If he persisted in an idea, they would take steps to implement it in the most sober and practical way possible. But if he didn’t, if an impulsive idea didn’t remain in his head beyond a single meeting (and it often didn’t), they would make sure to quietly bury it. So when an administration official tells Woodward, “A third of my job was trying to react to some of the really dangerous ideas that [Trump] had and try to give him reasons to believe that maybe they weren’t such good ideas,” I think: been there.
But what about doing this, not just in a private organization, but in the office of the nation’s chief executive? Let’s dispense with the argument that insufficiently loyal staffers are somehow undermining the constitutional order. On the contrary, this is the constitutional order. The president’s whim is not law. As I pointed out back when it was Obama’s people complaining about the “stunning disloyalty” of former cabinet officials, our system is designed to make sure that the chief executive can only act by going through other officials, many of them approved by Congress. Pushing the president to choose his aides and advisors from among established political figures with long careers independent of him is one way our system limits his power.
Here’s how I summed it up:
Our system is designed to discourage the kind of sycophants and yes-men who will be endlessly loyal to the president. Think about what the executive branch would look like if it were populated only by people who owed their careers to Obama…. Ours is not supposed to be a system of personal loyalty to the president. It never has been, and to expect it is an affront to the whole American political system.
If that was true for Obama, it is also true for Trump. Presidents always expect loyalty, they never get it, and that’s a good thing.
Besides, Trump is not a child. If he is being undermined by his own staff, these are not nannies chosen for him by somebody else. These are the people he selected. Having a clear idea of his agenda and hiring people who will execute it faithfully and effectively is the president’s core job. If he has failed at it, if he’s way better at picking fights on Twitter than at running the executive branch, that’s his problem, not the system’s problem.
And yet, I still cannot sympathize with people like the anonymous Times op-ed writer. If these officials are desperately struggling to save Trump from the consequences of his own incompetence, is that really the best thing for the country over the long term? Ben Domenech has a good point: “Anti-populists should want the voters to reap the benefits of their bad (from their perspective) decisions…. The only way people learn in a representative democracy is if they get what they want and don’t like it.” Or as H.L. Mencken put it, the people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.
By contrast, what is the effect of constantly running interference for Trump? What is the point of bailing him out from every bad decision and constantly saving him from himself? In their zeal to protect the country from the consequences of his incompetence, they are shielding Trump from any political consequences. Worse, by creating an illusion of Trump’s competence, they are confirming Trump’s supporters in the view that talk of his incompetence is a malicious lie invented by political enemies who just want to reverse the results of the election. This pushes back the day when voters are going to have to reckon with Trump’s full personality, and it makes it harder to confront the problem when that day arrives.
If these people had simply let Trump be Trump, the country would presumably have suffered a good deal more in the past year and a half. So they would have us believe, and I think the claim is plausible. This would have hastened the day when cries of “#MAGA” would begin to ring hollow and the American people would clamor for some kind of remedy to the problem, either through Trump’s defeat in the next election, or through a primary challenge, or through impeachment. If it proves to be as bad as all that, it might even hasten the invocation of the 25th Amendment—not because a small handful of insiders decide the president is incompetent, but because this becomes obvious to the public.
This is what brings me back to Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged. The dilemma faced by officials in this administration is similar to the one faced by the novel’s protagonist, Dagny Taggart. Motivated by love for the railroad built by her great-grandfather and concerned that the country as a whole would suffer from the railroad’s demise, she tries to keep it going in the middle of a global economic collapse. But the railroad is run by her older brother, Jim Taggart, whose decision-making is erratic and irrational. (I even once compared him to Donald Trump.) He wastes money on doomed pet projects, promotes his cronies inside the management, and is always scheming for special favors from cronies in the government. As one of his employees puts it, he’s no good at running the railroad, he’s only good at running to Washington, DC.
Dagny is the one who does know how to run the railroad, so every time one of Jim’s schemes ends in disaster, she is there to pick up the pieces and put them back together. She thinks she’s bailing out the railroad, but in reality she’s always bailing out Jim, preventing the railroad’s shareholders from rebelling and replacing him. She needs to stop trying to hold the world on her own shoulders and shrug it off, instead. She needs to let Jim fail and let the schemes of his political cronies fail. The consequences for the railroad and for the country are bad in the short term, but she is able to start the process of genuine recovery sooner.
That’s the model that should apply here. If officials in Trump’s White House really think they are the Atlases propping up the administration and saving it from disaster, they also need to shrug. Let Trump be Trump, and let us all see more clearly what he is. If he would fail if left to his own devices, let him fail. The country might take a hit in the short term, but we’ll all be better off facing up to the cold, unvarnished truth.