This Masha Gessen piece in the New York Review of Books is very good and everyone should read it and grapple with the dilemmas it describes, but Gessen commits an error that I find a lot of people are committing right now, some inadvertently and others with full awareness of what they are doing.
Gessen’s piece is about what she calls the “slippery slope of collaboration.” She analogizes her and her family’s time in soviet Russia to the current American predicament (this is her second essay to do so, so clearly she likes this analogy). But the slippery slope she envisions isn’t so slippery at all. Unlike soviet Russia, America has a robust democratic structure, a constitution, and a legislative and regulatory process that can’t easily be done away with or ignored. Americans under Trump aren’t trying to find their place on a slippery slope. The better analogy is deciding whether to live in one house or another. Americans under a Trump regime are going to have to make one large-scale moral decision, albeit an incredibly important one: whether or not to go along with violations of the law. Only if they decide to do so are they “collaborating” with a unique threat to American democracy.
Trump is a Republican (sort of), but he’s definitely more than that. If you’re willing to accept that the Republican party as a whole does not stand for the proposition of “subverting American democracy,” then you have to concede that Trump represents a unique threat to America and its people. The problem comes from separating Trump’s authoritarian impulses (Steve Bannon, send Hillary to jail, Muslim ban) from his Republican ones (repeal Obamacare, drill baby drill, tax cuts for the wealthy). [For the purposes of this essay we will leave out the third set of weird Trumpian impulses that don’t fit neatly into any ideological categories, like his resistance to free trade or his isolationist foreign policy.]
I don’t think there’s much of an argument that Trump holds the potential to be an authoritarian or a strongman. That’s baked into his whole persona, and it’s a scary reality. But that doesn’t mean that everything Trump does is uniquely authoritarian or representative of his threat to American democracy. In other words, some of the things Trump promotes or says are not symptomatic of the Trumpian threat to America, they are symptomatic of being a conservative Republican. Here’s a good way to apply this test: would Mitt Romney have done or said this? If so, we are probably not talking about the end of American democracy and liberty as we know it.
You could say this is a meaningless distinction, because Democrats and liberals are going to be resisting Trump whether he is doing something authoritarian, or doing something conservative. That’s true, but it misses the larger point raised by Gessen in her essay: that a uniquely authoritarian threat requires a uniquely radical form of resistance. In other words, we aren’t talking about what bills the Democrats in the Senate do or do not vote for. We are talking about the extent to which it is moral to collaborate with an enemy regime, to commit crimes, to engage in civil disobedience, even to commit or condone violence. Even the word Gessen uses – collaboration – implies that any cooperation with the regime and its goals involves a moral compromise. But there are different flavors of cooperation and she fails to distinguish between them – she focuses on the extent, not the categorical type, of collaboration.
Gessen most clearly blurs this line when she talks about the function of the career government official in the Trump government. She says this:
Could it be that as long as Trump is not looking, good things could be done, or continue to be done? The State Department could continue to support human-rights groups abroad, until or even after he fills top diplomatic posts with cronies, environmental regulations could somehow continue to be enforced—those that cannot easily be cancelled by executive order—, the National Endowment for the Humanities could continue to fund scholarship at home. Perhaps Trump and his family will be too busy pillaging the country to pay attention to the national bureaucracy.
I don’t know what the reference to the State Department means, really – has Trump threatened to cut off support for humans rights groups? Does support mean funding, or something more direct? But the second two points are more clearly a blurring of the lines between legitimate democratic disagreement and authoritarianism, which is Gessen’s focus in this piece. She says that perhaps career EPA civil servants could continue to enforce environmental regulations even, presumably, under a regime hostile to the enforcement of those regulations. But the EPA is a regulatory body governed by complicated administrative law. It has duties under the law, but its duties are broad and general, and it is placed in the executive branch precisely because the president is supposed to have a good amount of control over what it does and does not do. So the Mitt Romney test applies: would President Mitt have instructed his EPA to be friendlier to corporate interests within the discretion of the law, which is vast? Of course he would have. And it would not have represented a threat to the American way of life or necessitated legions of brave civil servants refusing their orders at risk of their own livelihoods.
Arguably, the latter outcome would be a far greater threat to American democracy than an EPA administrator who doesn’t care about the environment. In America, a political party is allowed to not care about the environment. It might be wrong or unfortunate, but is within the realms of democratic norms. What’s not within the realms of democratic norms is a career civil servant refusing to follow the law as it presently exists in America. Flip this around – what if an EPA staffer under Obama thought his coal regulations were unconstitutional (a not illegitimate position)? Would he have been morally justified in refusing to implement the Obama agenda, or would this have constituted an improper rebellion against the established legal order?
The danger of Gessen’s error – and I don’t mean to single her out, lots of people are doing this – is that there very well may come a time when decisions have to be made about whether to put oneself at risk for a greater good, and to refuse to go along with (collaborate with, in Gessen’s terms) the administration. If Trump follows through on his promise to reinstate torture, or if he begins singling out American citizens based on their race or religion, people are going to have to make some tough choices of the sort that Gessen highlights. I don’t want to minimize this – people could get killed.
But minimize it is exactly what Gessen does when she conflates being a conservative with being an authoritarian. I said earlier that I think some commentators are doing this purposefully, which is actually a rational (if not intellectually honest) thing for them to do. If you believe that keeping the EPA strong and activist in nature (no pun intended) is the difference between an apocalyptic future and a livable one, it’s in your interest to tell EPA employees that they may need to resist an authoritarian and/or fascist named Donald Trump. But it’s not necessarily in those employees’ interest, and you are committing the very crime you seek to prevent by subverting democratic norms.
[Maybe you think that American democracy needs to be subverted, or even overthrown. Maybe you are so fed up with the status quo that you think a revolution is needed and you see Trump as the vehicle to make this revolution happen (let’s call this the Susan Sarandon position). That’s great, but then please don’t come and whine to me about Trump overthrowing democracy, but in a different way than you would prefer.]
I’m a lawyer, so of course I am going to say that the law is the dividing line here, but I do think it is. Torture is illegal under international law. If Trump passes regulations targeting Muslims, that’s unconstitutional. These are illegal acts that will need to be resisted. Trump telling the National Endowment for the Humanities that they can’t give scholarships to leftist artists is not illegal, it’s not authoritarian, and it doesn’t represent the unique nature of the Trumpian threat to America. People should stop pretending that repealing Obamacare, a priority that Republicans have held since before Trump came on the scene, is the same as deporting Muslims. It is not a difference of degree, it is a difference of kind and category.
[The other error some people are committing is to pretend that Trump is just an incredibly conservative Republican and that resistance will naturally encompass only legal means and fights in the Senate and things like that. Call this the “I sure do like my privileged life” position.]