Donald Trump by himself can’t get anything done. Like any president, he needs an army of managers, economists, engineers, attorneys, spokespersons and other professional foot soldiers to head and staff departments and agencies to get the actual work done and documented.
We already know that when it comes to getting his way, Donald Trump is amoral, unethical and in many cases unconcerned with the legality of his actions, as long as he doesn’t get exposed. What will happen when the new president asks one or more of his many supernumeraries to engage in illegal or dangerous activities? To create an enemies list? To spy on those who his thin-skin thinks has insulted him? To use the Internal Revenue Service and other branches of government to punish his enemies or reward his friends? To put pressure on someone suing him? To transfer U.S. assets to a Russian bank? To do something specifically for one of his many business ventures?
Let’s journey back to the early 1970s to learn what will happen when a professional in government is asked to do something illegal. Watergate, like the Iran-Contra scandal, the justification for the second war in Iraq and the creation of the torture gulag, required dozens of people to discuss and engage in illegal activities. But I want to focus on one incident, the Saturday Night Massacre.
Archibald Cox, the special Watergate prosecutor had decided to subpoena Nixon to get the tapes he had made of all Oval Office conversations. Those tapes would show that President Nixon knew about the Watergate break-in, other dirty tricks and the cover-up of said activities. Nixon naturally balked at handing over the incriminating material. On Saturday, October 20, 1973, Nixon ordered Elliot Richardson, the Attorney General, to fire Cox. Richardson, as rib-rocked and loyal a Republican as one could find, refused and resigned. Nixon then ordered the Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus, another dyed-in-the-wool, lifelong Republican, to fire Cox. Ruckelshaus also resigned rather than do it.
But there is always some careerist, some amoral technician, willing to do the dirty work of a powerful person. In the case of Watergate it was Robert Bork, the Solicitor General, who fired Archibald Cox.
The story has a relatively happy ending. A judge declared the firing illegal. Nixon had to resign. And Bork was rejected when Ronald Regan nominated him to the Supreme Court. The country got a modicum of election finance reform…at least until the Citizens United decision.
The broader point is that there is always someone willing to break the law for our leader. Always an Oliver North willing to buy and sell arms illegally and give the proceeds to an army that Congress had explicitly put off limits. Always a John Yoo to come up with complicated legal-sounding mumbo-jumbo to justify illegal torturing of other human beings. And what’s most scary, is that there are always honorable men like General Colin Powell or Vice President Hubert Humphrey who will place a single indelible stain on their reputation to follow the commander’s orders and treat what he knows are unsubstantiated or already disproven rumors as the truth.
In 1927, the French thinker Julien Bendel wrote in The Betrayal of the Intellectuals (in French, La Trahison des Clercs) that the intellectuals—the high level knowledge workers like attorneys, engineers, economists, writers—betrayed the ethics and principles of their professions to support the self-serving ideas and proposals of governments, politicians and the wealthy that they knew were wrong or unprovable. He wrote specifically about the many European intellectuals who became apologists for crass nationalism, warmongering and racism in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Be they historians, political scientists, economists, philosophers or theologians, they betrayed the very foundational principles of their disciplines with false arguments justifying racism or a particular war. The intellectual who sells out is a standard character in 20th and 21st century world fiction, be it the fascistic Willy Stark’s press secretary Jack Burden in All the King’s Men or the Jewish physicist Victor Strum in Life and Fate. In real life, we have Edward Teller, Kellyanne Conway and George Will.
Benda never got into why intellectuals betrayed themselves (and society), but today, we do it for money.
That’s why I fear for this country over the next few years. I fear that a lot of talented educated people will participate in a campaign to reign in our free press, harass the political opposition and further suppress the vote. I fear that when President Trump orders the military to drop a bomb—conventional or nuclear—because of a momentary whim he will find a general willing to implement the order. One whose family probably has access to a well-stocked bomb shelter.
But it’s only four years.
I expect Trump to be a one-term president. His past is just too littered with illegal or unethical actions for him not to do something so obnoxious or illegal that Congress is forced to impeach him. Or, the GOP may impeach and convict him quickly, to gain their revenge and install one of their own, Mike Pence, in the White House. I reckon that the likelihood of Trump dying in office, or being assassinated, is very high. I do not believe the American government participated in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, but I would wonder about the U.S. military’s involvement if Trump should take a bullet.
Even if Trump survives impeachment and assassination, he will rightfully be blamed for the world-wide depression that implementing ever one of his or the Republican platform’s half-baked economic ideas would cause. Unless Mike Pence is president because of Trump’s passing, the Republicans will likely have most of the country angry at them for one of any number of betrayals by 2020. African-Americans, Hispanics, the LGBTQ community and left-leaning Democrats and independents will likely have a good chance of turning the tide and beat back the politics of selfishness and racist nativism among whites that catapulted Trump to the presidency.