Of all the conservatives who opposed Donald Trump during his campaign for the presidency, his most vehement opponents were the men and women who had served in past Republican administrations, and particularly in the departments of State and of Defense. One hundred and twenty-two Republican foreign policy hands signed a letter denouncing Trump as a menace to U.S. values and world peace. George W. Bush’s CIA director, Michael Hayden, suggested that Trump was a useful idiot for Russian interests. Both neoconservatives and realists – Robert Kagan and Paul Wolfowitz, Brent Scowcroft and Richard Armitage – indicated that they would vote for Hillary Clinton.
But now Trump will be the commander in chief, the leader of the free world, the man responsible for maintaining the rather frayed and tattered-looking Pax Americana. It’s safe to assume that the figures who denounced him most vocally will not be in line for key positions. But for others, especially the many younger public servants who would normally staff a Republican administration, a hard question looms: If they fear how Trump might govern, can they in good conscience work for him?
The answer, for now, is that they can and should – and indeed, precisely because they fear how Trump might govern, there is a moral responsibility to serve.
For the next four years, the most important check on what we’ve seen of Trump’s worst impulses – his hair-trigger temper, his rampant insecurity, his personal cruelty – won’t come from Congress or the courts or the opposition party. It will come from the people charged with executing the basic responsibilities of government within his administration.
This is particularly true in foreign policy, where presidential power has its fewest limits – where the chief executive can start wars with near-impunity, deal out death from the skies, rattle the global economy with an executive order, and decide with barely anyone else’s input to launch a nuclear weapon. In foreign policy, too, the choices that presidential appointees have to make on their own, in diplomatic and military contexts, can have life-or-death consequences very quickly. So to the extent that Trump’s approach to governance threatens world peace, that threat can be mitigated by appointees with experience and knowledge and magnified if their posts are filled by hacks and sycophants instead.
It may be, of course, that Trump wishes to fill the most important posts with sycophants. In which case anyone who goes to work for his State Department or Defense Department risks being subject not only to his whims, but also to the whims of secretaries and undersecretaries who mirror his all-too-readily-apparent vices.
But here the Republican Senate has a crucially important role to play. Trump cannot appoint Cabinet officials without the approval of many senators who opposed or doubted him throughout the campaign – from Mike Lee and Jeff Flake to John McCain and Lindsey Graham. These senators cannot force him to pick a secretary of state from the ranks of #NeverTrump foreign-policy hands. But they can look at his short lists and suggest names that would win confirmation easily (like Stephen Hadley for the Defense Department), while making it clear that other nominations (Newt Gingrich for secretary of state, say, or Sheriff David Clarke as head of Homeland Security) would be met with prejudice and voted down.
If this happens, if a layer of experienced leadership is established at the top, then it will signal to younger personnel that they can serve without fearing that the government they’re entering has already been Trumpified, or that they will be isolated if the man at the top goes haywire.
These men and women should not be ready to serve permanently, regardless of what their new boss does in office. If a Trump presidency lurches into naked authoritarianism – abusing executive authority in unprecedented ways, issuing immoral or illegal orders to the military – then there will be an obligation not to serve, but to resign. And the gray area between these two obligations will create a lot of territory in which Trump appointees could succumb to moral corruption, justifying their toleration for enormities on the grounds that “the greater good requires me to stay.”
But unlike in the campaign, when Republicans who endorsed him early were effectively enabling his rise to power, at this particular moment there is no further rise to be enabled. Trump is the president-elect, he will be the most powerful man in the world, whether good people decide to go to work for him or not. So if he is willing to make some responsible appointments, the good of the world requires that responsible people accept them, in the hopes that the first potential evil of his presidency – incompetence, leading to instability, leading to disasters – can be avoided.
Other evils may await, but sufficient unto this day this one. So if he calls, answer.