On January 20, 2017, Donald J. Trump will become the first president in U.S. history to take office without any prior government or military experience. However, this fact alone does not foreshadow disaster.
President Abraham Lincoln was conspicuously inexperienced. He had served a single term in the U.S. House of Representatives a decade prior to his election to the highest office in the land. Nevertheless, he proved to be one of the United States’ greatest presidents, successfully winning the Civil War and abolishing America’s original sin: slavery.
On paper, few presidents entered office with a more impressive resume than James Buchanan in 1857: He had been secretary of state, a U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, and the U.S. Minister to Russia and the United Kingdom. Despite this, Buchanan proved incapable of averting the Civil War or rectifying the slavery issue that fueled it.
While prior government experience may not be a perfect indicator of presidential success, stateliness and a genuine desire to respect constituents of all backgrounds goes a long way. With that said, this bears reiterating lest people forget: The next president of the United States is a racist, sexist, vaudevillian internet troll. It is clear we cannot expect greatness from him.
For this reason, it is imperative President Trump be surrounded by temperate advisors to restrain his worst impulses. During the presidential campaign, some of these impulses were exposed through calls to bring back torture as a weapon of war, plunder the oil of a sovereign nation, and murder civilians associated with terror suspects. Such policies violate international law, international norms, and all sense of decency.
So far, President-elect Trump’s White House staff selections have done little to allay the concern of those opposed to him and his policies. For the role of chief strategist, a position requiring daily interaction with the president and offering great proximity to power, Mr. Trump chose noted alt-right trafficker and alleged anti-Semite Stephen K. Bannon. His choice for national security advisor, the most powerful foreign policy job in the White House since the days of McGeorge Bundy and Henry Kissinger, Mr. Trump chose Islamophobic conspiracy theorist Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, a man former colleagues have described as “unhinged.” To add insult to injury, David Duke, a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, has lauded these selections.
During the campaign, for reasons concerning moral integrity, a number of Republicans opposed their party’s nominee by using the hashtag, #NeverTrump. #NeverTrump Republicans are generally people who support lower marginal tax rates and are happy to see another conservative appointed to the Supreme Court. Yet, despite the fact that Trump has promised such things, their consciences still did not permit them to support their party’s bombastic nominee. In a scathing speech in March 2016, Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee for president, argued that Mr. Trump lacked the temperament to be president, and noted the following:
“This is an individual who mocked a disabled reporter, who attributed a reporter’s questions to her menstrual cycle, who mocked a brilliant rival who happened to be a woman due to her appearance, who bragged about his marital affairs, and who laces his public speeches with vulgarity. Donald Trump says he admires Vladimir Putin, at the same time he has called George W. Bush a liar. That is a twisted example of evil trumping good.”
Over a hundred GOP national security figures signed an open letter denouncing Trump as unfit to be commander in chief. Some went even further. For example, Michael Hayden, the CIA director under George W. Bush, speculated Trump might be Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “useful fool.”
However, as revolting as it may be, Donald Trump is no longer vying for power; he has already amassed it. Because there simply aren’t enough pro-Trump GOP national security experts to staff all government positions, a certain number of jobs will be offered to campaign #NeverTrump Republicans, particularly at the middle and lower levels of the bureaucracy. If offered these jobs, anti-Trump Republicans should accept them, realizing that if they refuse, Trump loyalists who do not have as much experience in government will be appointed in their place. And these loyalists either lack the courage of their convictions or rather hold deeply perverse convictions.
Moreover, those #NeverTrump Republicans who end up in government must not forget with whom and to what they owe their fealty: U.S. citizens and the Constitution. If they enter government and are ordered to carry out an illegal act such as targeting civilians in a foreign conflict, they should publicly denounce such acts. History will reward whistleblowers if they first internally exhaust all options to address illegal and unethical government practices. The most salient past example of this was Daniel Ellsberg’s leak of the Pentagon Papers during the carnage and churn of the Vietnam War.
The election of Donald Trump may have ethically compromised the United States but the Trump administration must not be permitted to compromise the U.S. rule of law. If you are a #NeverTrump Republican like Mitt Romney, and you are on the fence about entering government, do not hesitate. Join. Work tirelessly to make a bad situation less bad. If not you, then who? Serve with purpose. Serve with dignity. Do not misplace your moral compass once inside.
Image: Mitt Romney speaking to supporters at a grassroots early voting rally in Mesa, Arizona. (Gage Skidmore, Flickr, Creative Commons)
Marco F. Moratilla works for New Magellan Venture Partners, LLC, a venture capital firm. He has experience at the National Security Archive and the U.S. House of Representatives. He holds an M.A. in international affairs from The George Washington University and a B.A. in political science from the University of California, San Diego. His work has appeared in International Affairs Review. A native Californian, he spent his formative years in Madrid, Spain.