Joe Biden has defeated Donald Trump. But that is only a half a victory for the alliance of centrist Democrats and national security veterans known colloquially as the #Resistance.
That loose coalition, influential amongst Democratic elites and prominent on social media, was looking not only for a Biden victory but a landslide rejection of Donald Trump. Their theory of governing a post-Trump country depends upon a repudiation of MAGA—what Biden called a battle for the soul of America. While the margin of victory was wide, around 4 million votes, it wasn’t the hoped-for political annihilation. John Sipher, a former CIA officer prominent in the #Resistance, summed it up by tweeting Tuesday night that he didn’t understand his country. That echoed the major criticism of the #Resistance coming from both Republicans and the left.
As Trump moves out of the White House, he leaves behind a Republican Party remade in his image, as well as a security apparatus he attempted to dominate. That puts a Trump in exile in position to have a #Resistance of his own—one that unites loyalist former security officials whom Trump gave the credential of running intelligence agencies with serving officials at Trumpy redoubts like the Department of Homeland Security. Already, on Thursday, his former acting director of national intelligence, Richard Grenell, baselessly insisted before a bank of TV cameras that Democrats are stealing the vote in Nevada. Meanwhile, without Trump in office, the original Democratic #Resistance coalition may not be so stable.
Trump’s election created an alliance of convenience between Democrats shocked at Hillary Clinton’s defeat and now-former national security officials, particularly atop the intelligence agencies, shocked that someone openly solicitous of Russian election interference could win the presidency. That coalition deeply influenced four years of Democratic opposition to Trump, from the myriad congressional investigations through impeachment.
There was a logic to it. Democrats, particularly those from the upper middle class, viewed intelligence officials not as the functionaries of torture, mass surveillance, and foreign destabilization, but as technocrats who, in Jim Clapper’s words, speak “truth to power,” safeguarding the republic against Trump’s authoritarian impulses and dictator-friendly foreign policy. The more Trump expressed his disdain for what he called “Nazis” in the security agencies—that is, those who had the temerity to investigate him—the closer Democrats tended to embrace them (with the important exception of James Comey, who played a major role in blocking Hillary Clinton’s ascent to the White House). The alignment drew upon generations of American exceptionalism that valorized national security officials, especially after 9/11, and more recently on the anti-George W. Bush “reality-based community,” as represented in the Hillary Clinton-era slogan that America was already great. It required little in the way of substantive political agreement—Lawfare’s Ben Wittes envisioned an anti-Trump “coalition of all democratic forces”—though both sides of the equation tended toward hostility to those on the left who saw Trump not as a departure from American traditions but as a esurgence of the country’s nativist traditions.
Biden, steeped in elite national security circles for his decades in public life, was a candidate ideally suited to this coalition. Biden’s longtime foreign policy aide Tony Blinken told Politico that restoring intelligence community morale and public confidence in intelligence were “among the most important things a President Biden would need to do—and that he’ll want to do—immediately.” Conversations with experienced national security officials during October 2020 tend to view a coming Biden administration as a restoration. Typical speculation amongst former intelligence officials about who Biden will appoint as director of national intelligence isn’t a #Resistance luminary within the Democratic party like Adam Schiff, the House intelligence committee chairman, but career intelligence officials like former National Security Agency Deputy Director Chris Inglis or Robert Cardillo, who during Barack Obama’s term ran the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.
However ideally suited Biden might be to the #Resistance, the coalition may not be stable without its centrifugal orange force. Competence for its own sake isn’t much of a unifying factor, and some former intelligence officials see their current alignment with Democrats as unfortunate. “It’s an identification against Donald Trump,” said one, rather than an identification with Democrats: “If Biden takes the tack of appointing intelligence professionals at ODNI, which is most likely to happen, the intelligence community will return to a position of political neutrality.” Another explained that intelligence professionals don’t seek an alignment with Democrats, but “stability, reliability, predictability,” something they don’t get with Trump but typically get with Democrats in power. That may be music to a technocrats’ ears; the left will see it as a reversion to a brutal American-exceptionalist status quo that yields Trump-like figures, particularly in an age of perpetual war post-9/11.
“A huge portion of those who paint Trump as an exception support the terrible security and economic policies that led to Trump,” said Thanassis Cambanis, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation. “The FBI and CIA are not allies in our effort to reform the abusive Security State, and this is one of the huge mistakes that people have made during this interregnum, to ally with that. We can trust all these career security officials to protect their institutional interests. That’s what they’re there for, they’re not interested in due process or people’s freedoms.”
Trump’s feuds with the intelligence agencies conceal more than they reveal. Throughout his presidency, Trump has attempted to suborn the intelligence leadership. It’s reached a fever pitch during the past few weeks, with Trump demanding FBI Director Christopher Wray and CIA Director Gina Haspel move against his enemies. He shifted the security bureaucracy’s center of gravity toward agencies he can wield, such as ODNI under John Ratcliffe or the Department of Homeland Security under Chad Wolf. When he can’t empower sufficient loyalists at the agencies, there is always Rudy Giuliani or the “Three Amigos” to do his bidding. The lazy Trump-Versus-The-Deep-State construction also neglects that a significant portion of Trump’s support comes from people MAGA would otherwise understand as hailing from the Deep State, like former Defense Intelligence Agency Director Mike Flynn, Navy SEAL turned mercenary baron Erik Prince or former CIA Osama bin Laden hunter Michael Scheuer.
“Intelligence will become much more politicized if Trump loses,” Fred Fleitz, a retired CIA official who was chief of staff at the National Security Council under John Bolton, said before the election. Fleitz recently wrote that recent intelligence history was one of “weaponiz[ing] intelligence to undermine the Trump candidacy and presidency.” To Fleitz, Trump installing loyalists like Ratcliffe was a necessary corrective. “I don’t want to see intelligence politicized, or not to tell the president things he doesn’t want to hear, but a policy agenda requires intelligence support for it,” Fleitz said.
While Trump has disempowered the intelligence community’s recent leadership, he hasn’t in any way rolled back the Security State. Recent and underexplored expansions in surveillance show that its powers have grown, either by decision or inertia, and only attract his ire when aimed at him. It indicates that Trump doesn’t wish to dismantle the Security State, he wishes to wield it, which for him means wielding it against his personal enemies.
Amongst anti-Trump intelligence veterans before Tuesday, there was a noticeable impulse to believe that Trump suffering an electoral defeat would break a Trumpist fever on the right—at least the strain of it that focuses its ire on the intelligence agencies. “The Matt Gaetzes and the Louis Gohmerts will go back to the fringe,” said one. “You’ll have people like Tom Cotton, who will be more supportive of the intelligence community, and what’ll happen is the leadership in the GOP, whoever that turns out to be, is going to say ‘We’re not going to ride this right-wing crazy horse anymore.’”
It jibes with believing that Trump is an aberration rather than a lagging indicator of a nativist turn in right-wing American politics after 9/11, the election of the first Black president, and a generation of upward wealth redistribution. But that is not how the right sees itself. “Trump’s rise in the Republican Party was always just a reflection of the views of Republican voters,” Republican strategist and former Trump White House official Andrew Surabian told The Daily Beast. The fealty which Republican future stars have shown Trump as the president discredited the vote the closer he came to losing it testifies to the enduring power of MAGA within the GOP coalition.
That points to a #Resistance of Trump’s own, should he find himself out of power.
In office, Ratcliffe and Grenell had unique access to thousands of national security secrets; made sure the ones that supported Trumpist narratives emerged; and purged intelligence officials whom Trump considered threatening. Ratcliffe, who promoted the Hunter Biden laptop story that Giuliani had hoped would end Biden’s candidacy, even explicitly urged Americans to vote for Trump from his perch at Liberty Crossing. Attorney General William Barr’s service to Trump quickly became legendary, whether through misrepresenting the Mueller Report, providing prosecutorial leniency to indicted Trump allies like Flynn, or deceitfully amplifying Trump’s false claims of voter fraud. Barr, aided by Ratcliffe, appointed a special prosecutor to investigate the intelligence agencies’ investigations of Trump.
All this may have fizzled out as an election ploy. But it stands to take on a new life in exile. The now-former senior officials will be positioned to insist, in media appearances and to the MAGA faithful, that they’ve seen the secret evidence that shows Trump was railroaded, the Obama-Biden-Clinton crime syndicate threatens the fabric of the nation and whatever else MAGA needs to hear. Even in mainstream media, the trajectory of similarly infamous intelligence “formers,” like warrantless surveillance architect, torture apologist, and #Resistance favorite Gen. Mike Hayden, points toward eventual normalization. More immediately, there will be an eager audience in Congress, particularly in the House, where Republicans expanded their ranks on the strength of the appetite for MAGA on the right. The right-wing revenge fantasy known as QAnon, which the FBI considers a domestic terrorism threat, sent at least one believer to Congress. And of course, Trump himself will not be out of public life, at least so long as he has his Twitter account.
Grenell provides an early test case of a MAGA #Resistance. On Thursday, the former acting DNI trekked to Nevada to declare that fraud was underway, insisting as a confidence game that Clark County was counting “illegal ballots.” Grenell, at a press conference, demanded reporters merely “take in information” and then ran away from NBC’s Jacob Soboroff when Soboroff pressed Grenell for evidence. Later, the registrar of Clark County, Joe Gloria, told reporters that the Trump campaign had not presented any evidence of fraud. “We’re not aware of any improper ballots that are being processed,” he said. Grenell continued to tweet that Gloria was lying.
And while anti-Trump intelligence officials tend to doubt that Trumpists have embedded deep within ODNI or CIA, they worry that’s not the case in places like the Justice Department or, especially, the Department of Homeland Security, which several speculate will be a hotbed of institutional Trumpist resistance. “If DHS employees are hardliners who see a new administration running away from policies they’re invested in, of course they’re going to view that negatively,” said one of the retired intelligence officials. Jenn Budd, a former Border Patrol agent, said that her one-time colleagues would engage Biden in bureaucratic combat, either slowing the implementation of policies that deviate from Customs and Border Patrol prerogatives or leaking damaging information, to ensure Biden acquiesces to their Trump-sympathetic agenda.
In August, the Border Patrol’s union, the National Border Patrol Council, endorsed Trump, much as police unions like the NYPD’s have. As NBPC union president Brandon Judd wrote, law enforcement “overwhelmingly supports President Trump.” Border agents feel comfortable giving anti-immigrant groups ride-alongs on the southern border, as happened last year in Arizona, something their former colleague Jenn Budd sees as part of an entrenched culture of racism. “Border Patrol has had this culture from the beginning,” said Budd, who expected it to pressure a potential President Biden.
Every former intelligence official interviewed for this piece expressed hope that Trumpist #resistance would be nonviolent. But not everyone was confident. “Some small segment of our population could well refuse to accept the fundamental legitimacy of a Biden administration,” said one of the former senior intelligence officials, “and then the question is how that manifests.”