What shall I cry?
We demand a committee, a representative
committee, a committee of investigation
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RESIGN RESIGN RESIGN”
– T.S. Eliot, “Difficulties of a Statesman”
WASHINGTON – Many have asked with rising hope in their voices: Will Steve Bannon be fired?
It would certainly be ironic for the alt-right conscience of the White House to be dismissed at the moment of his triumph. President Donald Trump’s recantation of his staff-enforced moral clarity on the Charlottesville clash was a high point for the Breitbart worldview. About that unequivocal condemnation of Nazis, racists and murder? Never mind. The left is just as bad. Both sides share the blame.
This might be defensible – if you leave out the 400 years of oppression, segregation, violence and cruelty that black people have experienced in North America. If you leave out a bloody Civil War started by slave interests to defend an economic system based on theft of labor and the lash. If you leave out the millions shot, gassed and incinerated under the Nazi flag, their wedding rings and gold fillings carefully collected by their killers. If you leave out every grave of every American who fought and died to defeat fascism and militarism.
So moral equivalence is an option – for those who are willfully blind to history and have a shriveled emptiness where their soul once resided.
This is now, sadly, an accurate description of America’s 45th president, who felt compelled to reveal his true convictions. Such compulsion has the virtue of honesty. It has the drawback (from Trump’s perspective) of leaving his defenders without excuse.
Now the operative question is not “Should Bannon leave?” It has become: “Why should anyone not named Bannon stay at the White House?”
There are, of course, some true believers beside Bannon who constitute a deep state of lunacy and malice. And it would be difficult for relatives to resign in protest from the family. But consider poor chief economic adviser Gary Cohn and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, standing beside Trump during his moment of sympathy for the “very fine people” at a white supremacist rally. (Cohn was “somewhere between appalled and furious,” according to sources who talked to Axios.) Or consider poor chief of staff John Kelly, who watched helplessly as message discipline swerved into the alt-right abyss.
But “poor” is not quite the right adjective. People with jobs at the White House or in the Cabinet are not victims. They hold positions of public influence and trust, with their primary duty owed to the United States Constitution (go and look at the oath they take), not to the president.
Loyalty to the president is a good thing, in the proper context. It is rooted in gratitude for the opportunity of a lifetime. There is a natural tendency, I can attest as a former White House staffer, to defend the leader you know from attacks by outsiders who know him not at all. Being an assistant to the president or a Cabinet officer is the chance to do great good – a chance that may never come again. Besides, the president won an election and has the right to set his own agenda. But Trump is knocking out the props that support this type of reasoning. He is a president who shows precious little downward loyalty, frequently subjecting his closest aides to public humiliation as a kind of management tool. The chance to do great good is dwindling day by day, as Trump systematically alienates natural allies and embitters enemies through compulsive taunting. His disordered character is preventing him from pursuing any sort of mandate that his election might have represented.
And it is not possible for a Cabinet officer or White House staffer to comfort himself or herself that “At least the president’s heart is good.” That is something I did not doubt when serving George W. Bush. Now Trump has opened his own chest for all to see. And the cavity is horrifyingly empty.
Every additional day of standing next to Trump – physically and metaphorically – destroys reputation and diminishes moral standing. The rationalizations are no longer credible. But resignation, in contrast, would be a contribution to the common good – showing that principled leadership in service to the Constitution is still possible, even in the age of Trump. When loyalty requires corruption, it is time to leave.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.