The most important intellectual case for Donald Trump’s candidacy, to the extent that such a thing could even exist, was an essay published last September by the Claremont Review of Books titled The Flight 93 Election.
Written by an author taking the pseudonym of a Roman warrior famous for sacrificing himself in battle, “Publius Decius Mus,” the piece analogized the America of 2016 to the doomed United plane hijacked by terrorists on 9/11. Cataloging a litany of worrying phenomena—“Crime,” “Massive, expensive, intrusive, out-of-control government,” “Politically correct McCarthyism,” etc.—Decius instructed conservatives that they had no choice but to embrace Trump, however much they disliked the man’s temperament, manner of speaking, or what amounted to his ideology.
Like the heroic passengers on Flight 93 who took a perilous situation into their own hands, Decius implored conservatives to join him in a last-ditch effort to save the country from progressivism: “Charge the cockpit or you die.”
Hewing to the analogy, Decius didn’t promise that Trump could avert disaster, only that Hillary Clinton’s election ensured it. “The Flight 93 Election” exemplified the apocalypticism that gripped the American conservative movement during the Obama years, a totalizing politics that portrays its democratic opposition as an existential threat. Many Americans must have seen things in a similar light, for Trump unexpectedly won, and Decius, later exposed as Michael Anton—a former speechwriter for Rudy Giuliani, George W. Bush and Rupert Murdoch—now serves on the National Security Council.
Anton’s case was hyperbolic. It was also hypocritical. For if any candidacy posed an existential threat to the American republic, it wasn’t the unexciting, predictable, left-of-center continuity represented by Hillary Clinton, but the reckless, impetuous, populist disruption promised by Donald Trump. The Flight 93 moment, in other words, is now.
In the real-life situation, as in Anton’s metaphor, individuals are asked to take risks for the good of the country by dislodging a dangerous individual from power. But now that Trump is president, and barring his unlikely impeachment or resignation, it is essential that he be joined in the cockpit by competent, experienced, patriotic individuals, who, unlike their Commander-in-Chief, put the best interests of the country before their selfish and venal desires. To the extent they can, they need to wrestle Trump from the controls—perhaps by convincing him to be a largely ceremonial president. At the very least, they can lessen the damage Trump can do. Ultimately, it is better to have them there than to have Trump flying alone. Which is why it’s unfortunate to see commentators urging high-ranking administration staffers to resign.
The calls for blanket abstention began months before Trump was even inaugurated. A mere week after the election, Eliot Cohen—Johns Hopkins professor, George W. Bush administration alum, and organizer of an open letter signed by Republicans opposed to Trump’s candidacy—retracted an earlier argument he had made to the effect that “young conservatives should volunteer to serve in the new administration, warily, their undated letters of resignation ready.” What ultimately changed Cohen’s mind, he wrote, was a disturbing email exchange with a spiteful transition official “completely dismissive” of Cohen’s concerns about the influence of Steve Bannon and whose general tone was “we’re so glad to see the bicoastal elites get theirs.” Cohen revised his advice to the conservative foreign policy community, suggesting, “Do what you can do in other venues, and remember that this too will pass, and some day a more normal kind of administration will either emerge or replace this one.”
As a fellow Never Trumper who ultimately backed Hillary Clinton, I share Cohen’s frustration and even outrage with the direction our country is headed, especially in light of this past week’s events. But here’s the problem: Unless one is willing to emigrate, Americans have no choice but to work with the Trump administration. We cannot wait for the “some day” when a “more normal kind of” president takes office. We’re stuck on this plane. Is it not in America’s interest that the pilot be surrounded by proficient, sane individuals who can mitigate his worst impulses?
I had no patience for people who supported Trump during the campaign. I even drew up a list of the “Top 25 politicians, institutions, and media personalities that aided and abetted the rise of Donald Trump—and should never be absolved for it.” But that was before the election. Now that Trump is president, the country needs all the rational members of his administration to remain in place, with the caveat that they be prepared to protest and, if necessary, resign in response to an order to do something unethical or unconstitutional.
Thankfully, people like Jim Mattis, John Kelly, and H.R. McMaster heeded the call, and are serving the country as best they can under a neo-Confederate, megalomaniacal narcissist. The appointment of Kurt Volker, an experienced diplomat and Russia hawk whose last posting was U.S. Ambassador to NATO, as point man for the Ukraine crisis was an inspired choice that should be applauded. So too is the nomination of Wess Mitchell, a dynamic young policy expert who founded Washington’s premier think tank specializing in Europe, to the position of Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasian Affairs. Any of these individuals could have been chosen to serve in a more mainstream Republican administration, and it’s a relief to knowthey’re serving this erratic and unconventional one.
Yet every time a Trumpian outrage occurs, as they do with depressing regularity, pundits take out their anger on these officials, demanding that they share in the generalized moral indignation. Such was the case of Washington Post columnist David Rothkopf, who, responding to Trump’s initial failure to explicitly condemn neo-Nazis after last weekend’s tragedy in Charlottesville, tweeted:
“Kelly is a disgrace. Frankly, anyone in the administration who does not publicly condemn the president is. Yes…even the sainted Mattis.”
By asking officials in the Trump administration to “publicly” denounce their boss, Rothkopf is essentially demanding that these people force themselves to be fired. Unlike newspaper columnists and Twitter denizens, people working for the President of the United States do not have the luxury of sniping at him from the safety of the sidelines. Joe Scarborough, who transformed himself from one of Trump’s loudest media cheerleaders to moralizing scold without expressing even a scintilla of atonement in between, is calling for mass resignations.
Who does these pundits think will fill the positions of White House Chief of Staff and Defense Secretary were Kelly and Mattis to go? Very likely the kinds of conspiracy theorists and nationalists whom McMaster has been tirelessly cleaning out of the National Security Council, and who would have thrived were his predecessor Mike Flynn still around. Indeed, for all the administration backstabbing and high drama that has filled headlines over the past several months, such palace intrigue is far better than the alternative: an administration purged of reasonable individuals and replaced by Bannonites.
It is precisely when things get so bad that we want trustworthy individuals to serve. With any hope, they will be able to land this administration to safety.