What should we make of “Anonymous”?

As I’m pretty sure you already know, Wednesday the New York Times published “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration” by an anonymous “senior official”. [1] The author claims to be one of many similarly placed people who are “working diligently from within to frustrate parts of [Trump’s] agenda and his worst inclinations”. They do this because “we believe our first duty is to this country, and the president continues to act in a manner that is detrimental to the health of our republic.”

Anonymous diagnoses problems that run deep in Trump’s character and competence: He is “amoral” and has “no discernible first principles”. His “impulses are generally anti-trade [2] and anti-democratic”.  And his leadership style is “impetuous, adversarial, petty and ineffective”, resulting in “half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions that have to be walked back”.

In response, the internal resistance works to “preserve our democratic institutions” by keeping “bad decisions contained to the West Wing”. This results in a “two-track presidency”, where Trump may say one thing, but the government actually pursues a different policy entirely. Anonymous gives the example of how we deal with other countries:

In public and in private, President Trump shows a preference for autocrats and dictators, such as President Vladimir Putin of Russia and North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, and displays little genuine appreciation for the ties that bind us to allied, like-minded nations.

Astute observers have noted, though, that the rest of the administration is operating on another track, one where countries like Russia are called out for meddling and punished accordingly, and where allies around the world are engaged as peers rather than ridiculed as rivals.

So don’t worry, America, “there are adults in the room … [who are] are trying to do what’s right even when Donald Trump won’t”.

The questions this raises. Since Wednesday, debate has sprung up in a number of areas.

  • Is this for real? If it isn’t, then the NYT (which claims to know who Anonymous is and to have verified that he really wrote this) has made the whole thing up. To me, that kind of fraud would be way more incredible than anything in the essay, but I imagine some Trump supporters will believe that “the fake news media” and “the failing New York Times” do stuff like this all the time. Trump himself, as usual, wants it both ways: He both suggests that the article is fake and demands that the Justice Department find out who wrote it (even though there is no crime to investigate, so this shouldn’t be a DoJ matter).
  • Who is Anonymous, and who else is part of this “we” he describes? (Like most commenters, I’m going to use a male pronoun, which is a good bet for a “senior official in the Trump administration”.) This is the kind of guessing game that Washington insiders love, because getting it right proves you’re more savvy than everybody else. But what difference does it make? Suppose I tell you it’s Mike Pompeo or Dan Coates; does that change anything? [For what it’s worth, here’s my guess: Somebody who just barely qualifies as “senior” wrote it, but he did it with the blessing of his boss, who can now say “Not me!” to Trump and to the public. I’ll illustrate with analogies from previous administrations: What if Lawrence Wilkerson had written such an essay with the blessing of Colin Powell, or Huma Abedin under the direction of Hillary Clinton?]
  • Should the NYT have published this? I hadn’t thought this was a particularly interesting question, but The New Yorker’s Masha Gessen convinced me otherwise. More about that below.
  • Are the internal resisters heroes or villains? This is complicated. Obviously, if Trump throws a fit and wants to nuke Belgium, any staffer who loses that order before it reaches the missile silos is a hero. But when unknown people consistently decide that they’re smarter than both the elected officials and the voters who elected them, that’s a problem for democracy. (It reminds me of countries like pre-Erdogan Turkey, where the military was always checking to make sure the voters got it right.) More below.
  • How will this article affect events going forward? As many people have pointed out, publishing this essay is just going to make Trump more erratic and more paranoid, so it’s hard to see how it furthers the author’s apparent goals. On the other hand, it’s got to have an effect on the mid-term voters. Stories about Trump’s unfit behavior have been around for a while now, but they’ve been filtered through reporters who could be exaggerating or distorting. (Bob Woodward is harder to dismiss on that count than Michael Wolff or Omarosa, though the MAGA-hatters will manage somehow.) But the Anonymous essay is on a different level. Unless you’re willing to believe that the NYT conjured Anonymous out of pure smoke, you have to admit that even some Republicans who work with Trump and his administration every day think that he’s dangerous. Suddenly it makes a lot of sense to elect a Democratic Congress to fill the constitutional check-and-balance roles that Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell have abdicated.

Gessen’s take on the NYT’s decision. Masha Gessen argues that the Anonymous essay is not newsworthy enough to offer the author an anonymous platform. The anonymous Trump “resister” is just repeating a point of view that we’ve heard many times before: Trump is unfit. He doesn’t understand the presidency, the American system of government, or the details of any particular issue. He doesn’t respect democracy or the rule of law. He doesn’t think rationally, or even hold an idea in his head from one minute to the next. The people around him try to manipulate him (and often succeed) because they believe (correctly) that he’s a dangerous fool.

That’s not news. We’ve been hearing it from anonymous White House sources for a long time now, and just heard it again in Bob Woodward’s new book (out tomorrow, but already widely quoted). The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer sums up:

The biggest open secret in Washington is that Donald Trump is unfit to be president. His staff knows it. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell knows it. House Speaker Paul Ryan knows it. Everyone who works for the president, including his attorneys, knows it.

If you know about Trump’s unfitness, are in a position to do something about it, and choose to do nothing, then you are complicit in his presidency. It’s really that simple, no matter what story you tell yourself. Gessen expands the circle of complicity further:

The thing about autocracies, or budding autocracies, is that they present citizens with only bad choices. At a certain point, one has to stop trying to find the right solution and has to look, instead, for a course of action that avoids complicity. By publishing the anonymous Op-Ed, the Times became complicit in its own corruption.

The way in which the news media are being corrupted—even an outlet like the Times, which continues to publish remarkable investigative work throughout this era—is one of the most insidious, pronounced, and likely long-lasting effects of the Trump Administration. The media are being corrupted every time they engage with a nonsensical, false, or hateful Trump tweet (although not engaging with these tweets is not an option). They are being corrupted every time journalists act polite while the President, his press secretary, or other Administration officials lie to them. They are being corrupted every time a Trumpian lie is referred to as a “falsehood,” a “factually incorrect statement,” or as anything other than a lie. They are being corrupted every time journalists allow the Administration to frame an issue, like when they engage in a discussion about whether the separation of children from their parents at the border is an effective deterrent against illegal immigration. They are being corrupted every time they use the phrase “illegal immigration.”

The corrupt exchange here is that (in return for an article that everyone wants to read), the Times allows Anonymous to paint a virtuous self-portrait: By keeping the American people from knowing what its government is actually doing or why, people like him become “unsung heroes”. I’m sure they tell themselves that, but few things could be farther from the truth. Rather than actually resist, they cover for Trump’s incompetence. Rather than stand up to him, they flatter him.

But since the NYT has bestowed anonymity, we can’t effectively contest that self-portrait, or hold Anonymous responsible for the Trumpian policies he actually did carry out. Why, you might wonder, didn’t some internal resister get in the way of Trump taking children away from asylum-seeking parents? Officials who participated in that evil policy, or helped justify it after the fact — what kind of “resisters” are they really? Or why couldn’t the “adults in the room” manage to get Puerto Rico some help before thousands of American citizens died there?

The Devil’s bargain. If Trump really is unfit, and if this is widely known in the administration and Congress, then why don’t they remove him, either through impeachment or the 25th Amendment? Even if the resisters are only a minority of the cabinet, why don’t they stage a mass resignation and bring their case to the public? Why do the never-Trumpers continue to be such a lonely and pathetic segment of the Republican party?

Serwer explains:

But they all want something, whether it’s upper-income tax cuts, starving the social safety net, or solidifying a right-wing federal judiciary. The Constitution provides for the removal of a president who is dangerously unfit, but those who have the power to remove him will not do so, not out of respect for democracy but because Trump is a means to get what they want. The officials who enable the Trump administration to maintain some veneer of normalcy, rather than resigning and loudly proclaiming that the president is unfit, are not “resisters.” They are enablers.

We’re seeing this process right now with the Brett Kavanaugh nomination. It makes literally zero sense to allow a president like Trump (who may only hold his office because he committed a crime to get it) to appoint judges who will probably have to rule on important points of his case, like whether he can be subpoenaed or whether he can pardon himself. But Kavanaugh will cement a far-right majority on the Supreme Court, something the conservative movement has been trying to achieve for decades. Why let that questing beast get away, just because the President is unstable and may have to use undemocratic methods to stay in power?

This is how tragedies happen: because everyone in a position to prevent them has some special reason not to. And usually they all have some way of telling the story that makes them sound like heroes.

They’re not. An official who refuses to carry out an illegal or unconstitutional order is a hero. When a staffer conveniently ignores orders given when the president is not in his right mind, ones that the president himself will soon be glad weren’t implemented — that staffer may be a better friend than the president deserves. There is virtue in openly refusing to implement policies you believe to be immoral or catastrophic, in telling the president directly that you will resign first, and then carrying out that threat and warning the public about what is happening.

But there’s nothing virtuous about setting yourself up as a permanent unelected government-within-the-government, and tasking yourself to implement a policy agenda the voters rejected. Elections ought to be consequential, and if those consequences are too much for the country to bear, then the president should be removed by legal means.

[1] Don’t miss the parodies: Slate’s “I Am Part of the Police Department Inside This Bank Robbery” and McSweeney’s “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside Nyarlathotep’s Death Cult“.

[2] Of all the Trump policies that officials can justifiably monkey-wrench in the name of democracy, I would think trade is about last, because protectionism and getting tough with our trade partners was a big part of Trump’s message from the beginning. If Americans really wanted free trade, somebody like Ted Cruz or Jeb Bush should have been able to make that case against Trump in the Republican primaries. So I have to agree with Ross Douthat:

One might say that insofar as the officials resisting Trump are trying to prevent his temperamental unfitness from leading to some mass-casualty disaster or moral infamy, they are doing the country a great service. But insofar as they are just trying to prevent him implementing possibly-misguided populist ideas, they are being presumptuously antidemocratic and should resign instead.

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  • reverendsax  On September 10, 2018 at 8:52 am

    Some sort of tragedy is coming. We just don’t know what kind or how destructive it will be, and for whom, but probably for all of us. Meanwhile, I cannot say “anonymous” while speaking of the past week. I always say “anomynous,” which I define as someone unknown who is out of place. My ten year old granddaughter says it means “something wrong.”

  • Roger  On September 10, 2018 at 9:09 am

    FWIW, and it ain’t much, I think it’s Kellyanne. https://www.rogerogreen.com/2018/09/09/anonymous-op-ed-vichy-collaborators-25th-amendment/

  • Kaci  On September 10, 2018 at 9:17 am

    Given the ” effective deregulation, historic tax reform, a more robust military and more” I’m pretty sure the op-ed writer isn’t someone I would support either, and I’d much rather they invoke the 25th amendment.

  • Rick  On September 10, 2018 at 9:54 am

    Count me as one of the readers unimpressed with Anonymous. OK, so a few people in the White House are keeping their figurehead, i.e. the guy what brung them to the dance, from doing anything too egregious..while promoting the same dreadful Republican agenda we’ve been seeing for years. Anonymous and cohorts are simply functioning as a safety valve that allows the unholy juggernaut to continue rolling along.

    I’d almost say I prefer a 25th amendment solution, but along with many others I fear a Pence Presidency more than the current disaster. Pence, for all his faults (and they are many, and grievous) knows how to act like an adult in public, and more dangerously knows how to get along with his Congressional colleagues in a way that would speed legislation along. Meanwhile, Trump’s unaccountable behavior and yawning, gaping holes in his intellectual armament, while dangerous, are probably protecting us from the worst that might happen.

    I’ll feel differently about this if the Democrats take the House and/or the Senate in November.

  • Bill Camarda  On September 10, 2018 at 10:07 am

    The best parody I’ve seen is Alexandra Petri’s in the Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/opinions/wp/2018/09/06/i-am-the-real-resistance-the-resistance-within-the-trump-administration/

  • George Washington, Jr.  On September 10, 2018 at 10:17 am

    Let’s assume that anonymous is a real person and the NYT didn’t just make this up to promote Woodward’s book. So if what the writer describes is actually happening, why would they spill the beans and risk Trump changing his tactics to circumvent the “two-track presidency?” It would be like a schoolkid anonymously informing their elderly teacher who is unfamiliar with the Internet that some of the kids in class are copying their essays from Wikipedia. This raises the possibility that anonymous actually disapproves of what’s going on and wants to stop it by outing the perpetrators without naming them.

    The other possibility is that it’s not happening at all, or at least not to any significant extent, and that Trump himself approved the op-ed to garner sympathy among his fans, who now must unite and support him even more fervently against the traitors within his own administration. It’s no coincidence that this came out right after we learned that Woodward’s book essentially says the same thing.

  • peteybee  On September 10, 2018 at 10:57 am

    Thanks for taking the time to write this out in detail.

    FYI and for other readers, we should understand that the 25th Amendment (section 4) process to remove the president requires a far higher burden than impeachment.

    With Trump’s surprisingly robust support among (80%+) among Republican likely voters, and the fact that his administration has so far delivered on all the classic Republican wish-list policy items, while diverting the blame away from them onto himself, it’s safe to say he won’t be removed other than as a possible strategic nomination-time switch in 2020.

    I hope Democrats realize this and shift the focus of “resistance” away from cheerleading the freedom-fries / national-security crowd, and toward the enormous variety of domestic policy disasters that Trump brings – together with not only his party, but also with the national-security people, who limit their opposition strictly to areas where Trump makes a mockery of US international positions.

    Also, the first “parody” in footnote 1 is spot on!

  • Mikel Aickin  On September 10, 2018 at 3:21 pm

    Re religious liberty. I think a better and more accurate phrase than “religious privilege” would be “Christian sharia”. It took Islamic sharia several centuries to replace secular law in the middle east, but it could happen much faster here and now.

  • Dale Moses  On September 10, 2018 at 6:11 pm

    Another unexplored track on the op-ed.

    This Is simply another example of the NYT purposefully carrying water for Republicans. The message that the op ed conveys is not “vote for Democrats” but “you don’t have to feel bad voting for Republicans if you don’t like Trump, see we are doing the right thing and promoting all the stuff you like and preventing all the stuff you don’t like”

    There is an old political saying my friends and I like to repeat in situations like these; “Both sides are bad, vote Republican”. That is precisely what this article is saying, with the modification that it’s now “both sides are good, vote republican”.

    • George Washington, Jr.  On September 10, 2018 at 7:42 pm

      Interesting idea – never thought of that, and I’m sure the NYT editors didn’t think of it either.

      • Dale Moses  On September 11, 2018 at 4:50 pm

        Oh. They definitely did. They have been carrying water for Rs as long as I have been alive.

  • coastcontact  On September 10, 2018 at 10:35 pm

    The question you neglect to ask is Can there be a Coup in the United States?

    The answer based on an anonymous Op-Ed in the New York Times is YES!

    Democrats should not be clapping their hands with delight over this situation. The same insider behavior could have occurred during the Obama administration.

    The single person that all Americans elect to lead the country is the president. Members of the House of Representatives and Senate are elected by the district or the state. We rely on the president to lead the entire nation regardless of political party or other affiliations.

    There is nothing in the Constitution that gives anyone authority to countermand the president’s decisions except laws passed by the congress or rulings by the Supreme Court.

    When other people attempt to undermine or delay the president’s decisions they are interfering with the process of government that has been the basis of the American democracy since its inception.

    While I view Donald Trump as a bad leader who could cause a war or an economic catastrophe he is the person that our system of elections has chosen to be president. Unfortunately his faults are many. Trump has been a supporter of groups that sew hate and he has made many nations that were considered allies into enemies.

    Despite his obvious failings, I am not comfortable with an inner circle of people in the White House who are attempting to control the decision making process in the White House. They may say their actions are to protect our country but they are unanswerable to the American people.

    We do have three ways of removing president. 1) Not re-elect him for a second term, 2) Action taken by the Vice President and “principal officers of the executive departments” to remove the president from power, 3) Impeachment. All of those choices are better than undermining our system of governing.

  • Eric L  On September 12, 2018 at 7:05 pm

    Rather than Anonymous’s self-serving “steady state,” I’ve become fond of referring to them as the “shallow state conspiracy,” as it’s a play on deep state that reflects the reality that we’re talking about people high up in the administration selected by Trump who don’t think Trump can be allowed to just govern, not the career bureaucrats from previous administrations that Trump has been implying.

  • Ed O  On September 13, 2018 at 7:52 pm

    Another problem with publishing the Anonymous essay: it lets conservatives who want their tax cuts and other policy outcomes that a Trump administration promises to seek get away with thinking they can re-elect him and he’ll magically be prevented from causing any real damage.


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