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In the aftermath of the 2016 election, I joined many public servants in private conversations about how to approach federal service in the age of Donald Trump. Most of us had been through presidential transitions before and had proudly served under Republican and Democratic administrations.
But everyone knew this time was different.
They had watched Trump ride to victory on a wave of nationalism, race-baiting and disregard for truth. Some of us had served abroad in war-torn countries and recognized Trump was borrowing from an authoritarian’s playbook used by dictators around the world. Others noted that their personal principles, the missions of their federal agencies, or the purpose for which they were hired — to protect and serve the American people — were under direct threat from an incoming administration that derided science, diplomacy and basic principles of effective and honest government.
The question facing everyone was, “Can I still serve?” People who had dedicated their lives to public service were considering walking away after 10, 15 or 20 years without the cushion of a modest government retirement.
Though small in proportion to the tens of thousands of federal employees, there has been a steady flow of resignations over the last year. The departures have come at all levels. In my former field, national security, we’re losing some of our most experienced public servants as well as drying up the pipeline of young and midcareer talent.
While that saddens me, I support their making a stand. But I’m also grateful to those who have stayed. They can mitigate a lot of damage. They still represent America from our embassies, they still serve in uniform, and they’re still trying to protect our basic rights and safety at home. I trust that my friends will not follow illegal or amoral orders. They would quit before compromising their core values. And if necessary, they would be whistle-blowers to expose provable wrong-doing.
Bureaucracy is often scorned, but it’s a great way to improve, prevent and/or delay bad policy simply through due diligence and analysis that cannot be hidden.
Some of my former colleagues are senior enough to speak directly to Trump’s political appointees. The appointees clearly don’t follow all of their advice, but they do follow some. The worst impulses are softened, and less drastic measures put in place. Steam is blown off and a president is mollified.
Imagine that: The troubling things we hear about may actually be a fraction of the crazy stuff that gets considered. Allies are steadied, enemies are put on alert, and the American people sleep at night.
But there’s a risk that even principled public servants will be forced by their supervisors, the daily grind, or simply exhaustion to make small, incremental concessions that gradually undermine American interests and values.
Authoritarian regimes emerge not because of a single strongman, but because numerous individuals commit small acts of complicity. When going along is easier, when the small concessions are not as obvious as the personal red lines you drew, when there’s still a mortgage and child care and someone more senior ordering you to do it, these acts could almost become routine.
Those on the inside have to stay vigilant. And those of us on the outside must support those who still serve. They cannot be our only line of defense.
The best thing any of us can do is leverage our power as citizens in a democracy. Write and call and use media to stand up for basic American principles. Show those inside that they have allies. Use your vote, voice and wallet to elect a Congress that will serve as a true check and balance on the executive branch.
With this White House and Congress, it’s easier than ever to detest Washington, D.C. Just remember, there are tens of thousands of public servants in the capital who swore an oath to the Constitution (not to the president).
They still uphold that oath every day they go to work.