Chill, Amer­ica. Not ev­ery Trump out­rage is out­ra­geous.

Never-Trump Repub­li­can Tom Ni­chols says the pres­i­dent’s crit­ics should mod­u­late their panic

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Tom Ni­chols, a pro­fes­sor at the Naval War Col­lege and the Har­vard Ex­ten­sion School, is the au­thor of “The Death of Ex­per­tise.” The views ex­pressed are en­tirely his own. Twit­ter: @Ra­dioFreeTom

The pres­i­dent fired all the am­bas­sadors! He’s is­su­ing ex­ec­u­tive or­ders! He’s put­ting po­lit­i­cal cronies into trusted po­si­tions! He’s declar­ing his in­au­gu­ra­tion to be a spe­cial na­tional day! Well, of course he is. It’s what pres­i­dents do in their first weeks in of­fice. It’s what Bill Clin­ton, Ge­orge W. Bush and Barack Obama did, too.

Much to the dis­may (and per­haps even sur­prise) of his op­po­nents, Pres­i­dent Trump has charged into of­fice de­ter­mined to im­ple­ment many of the poli­cies he promised on the cam­paign trail. From dis­man­tling the Af­ford­able Care Act to chang­ing the com­po­si­tion of the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, the pres­i­dent has fired off a se­ries of de­ci­sions that have sparked ma­jor protests across the United States. There is no hon­ey­moon with the press or the op­po­si­tion, nor does the pres­i­dent seem to want one. (His ap­proval rat­ings, pre­dictably enough, are hit­ting his­toric lows for a new ad­min­is­tra­tion.)

There is plenty of fuel for the pres­i­dent’s crit­ics in these ac­tions, yet Trump’s op­po­nents — es­pe­cially in the me­dia — seem de­ter­mined to over­re­act on even or­di­nary mat­ters. This is both un­wise and dam­ag­ing to our po­lit­i­cal cul­ture. Amer­ica needs an ad­ver­sar­ial press and a sturdy sys­tem of checks and bal­ances. Un­mod­u­lated shock and out­rage, how­ever, not only burn pre­cious cred­i­bil­ity among the pres­i­dent’s op­po­nents, but even­tu­ally will ex­haust the pub­lic and in­crease the al­ready stag­ger­ing amount of cyn­i­cism par­a­lyz­ing our na­tional po­lit­i­cal life.

Much of this anx­i­ety is rooted in the pub­lic’s tragic ig­no­rance of civics and gov­ern­ment. For younger Amer­i­cans, this is some­what un­der­stand­able. They may have no firm mem­ory of any pres­i­dent tak­ing of­fice other than Obama, and it’s un­likely that they were overly con­cerned with the statu­tory mem­ber­ship of the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil eight years ago. Even cit­i­zens who re­mem­ber ear­lier tran­si­tions would have to go back to the chaos of the 2000

elec­tion to re­call a more di­vi­sive trans­fer of power.

Jour­nal­ists are sup­posed to have a longer mem­ory, but the me­dia seems to de­spise Trump more than any pres­i­dent in mod­ern his­tory, even Richard Nixon. (Reuters re­cently is­sued guid­ance on cov­er­ing the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion the same way its re­porters cover au­thor­i­tar­ian regimes around the world.) Trump, for his part, clearly rev­els in that com­pe­ti­tion and feeds it daily with taunt­ing tweets and in­cen­di­ary of­fi­cial state­ments that he knows will make news.

As a re­sult, too many in the me­dia are in­clined to take ev­ery ac­tion by the new ad­min­is­tra­tion as a dec­la­ra­tion of war, pre­sent­ing al­most ev­ery­thing as un­prece­dented or un­con­sti­tu­tional or some other alarm­ing ad­jec­tive. For in­stance, Trump’s procla­ma­tion of In­au­gu­ra­tion Day as a “Day of Pa­tri­otic De­vo­tion” was deemed not only “vaguely com­pul­sory” but also to have “echoes of North Korea.” But eight years ago, Obama de­clared his own in­au­gu­ra­tion an equally creepy-sound­ing “Day of Re­newal and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion.”

This feeds into a so­cial-me­dia en­vi­ron­ment that is hy­per­ven­ti­lat­ing about Trump’s ev­ery word — as so­cial me­dia does about ev­ery­thing.

Or­di­nary cit­i­zens might be for­given for their lack of civic knowl­edge, but long-serv­ing mem­bers of Congress cer­tainly know bet­ter. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) said he was boy­cotting the Trump in­au­gu­ra­tion, and that it would “be the first one that I miss since I’ve been in the Congress,” which roiled the news and stunned only those who didn’t re­call that Lewis also boy­cotted Bush’s 2001 in­au­gu­ra­tion. Sen. Pa­trick Leahy (D-Vt.) said this past week that he had never seen an ex­ec­u­tive or­der end up on the wrong side of a fed­eral court so fast — as though a chal­lenge to an ex­ec­u­tive or­der was it­self an un­prece­dented mo­ment in his­tory.

And when the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion tweaked Obama’s or­der on Rus­sia sanc­tions — in a move to cor­rect an ob­sta­cle even Obama did not in­tend to place in the way of U.S. ex­ports to Rus­sia — sev­eral mem­bers of Congress charged the White House with re­ward­ing Rus­sia’s in­ter­fer­ence in the U.S. elec­tion. Trump, Rep. Eric Swal­well (D-Calif.) said, was eas­ing sanc­tions against Rus­sian hack­ers and the Rus­sian se­cu­rity ser­vices, and al­low­ing Rus­sia “to sharpen its knives and im­port tools from the United States to hack us again.” On the other hand, even Rus­sia hawk Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said the change seemed to be a “tech­ni­cal fix.” But the ac­cu­sa­tion of lift­ing sanc­tions has now been made; should the day ar­rive when the White House ac­tu­ally does want to al­le­vi­ate the sanc­tions against Moscow, such com­plaints might have less force with a pub­lic who has heard it all al­ready.

This con­tin­ual panic is short-cir­cuit­ing any rea­son­able de­bate about the pres­i­dent’s poli­cies by in­dulging Trump’s fiercest op­po­nents in the be­lief that some­thing could de­stroy his pres­i­dency be­fore it has a chance to gov­ern. Still fu­ri­ous over the out­come of the elec­tion, Trump’s crit­ics seize on ev­ery move as if there is a Water­gate mo­ment to be found if only they look hard enough. But even Nixon didn’t fall to a sud­den scan­dal: He was a deeply con­se­quen­tial pres­i­dent who gov­erned his way to a re­elec­tion land­slide be­fore his even­tual res­ig­na­tion.

With that said, there’s plenty of cause for worry. I wrote at length for more than a year about why I thought Trump should not be pres­i­dent, and noth­ing since has eased my con­cerns about his tem­per­a­ment or poli­cies. I am grieved at the need­less in­sults to our al­lies in NATO; I be­lieve his phone call with Tai­wan was reck­less; I am ap­palled at the close­ness be­tween an Amer­i­can ad­min­is­tra­tion and the Rus­sian en­emy regime led by Vladimir Putin.

I could go on. As a scholar of in­ter­na­tional se­cu­rity af­fairs, I wish we were talk­ing about these is­sues on their mer­its. Un­for­tu­nately, our na­tional de­bate is in­stead con­sumed with over­re­ac­tion and hys­te­ria, which not only cloud im­por­tant ques­tions but in the short term para­dox­i­cally play to the pres­i­dent’s ad­van­tage, no mat­ter how much his op­po­nents wish oth­er­wise.

For ex­am­ple, Trump promised a Mus­lim ban dur­ing the cam­paign. But the ex­ec­u­tive or­der now run­ning into mul­ti­ple chal­lenges is not ac­tu­ally a Mus­lim ban: It af­fects the cit­i­zens, re­gard­less of faith, of sev­eral Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity coun­tries in the Mid­dle East and Africa but has no rel­e­vance to per­sons of Is­lamic faith who carry the pass­ports of al­most 200 other coun­tries. None­the­less, pun­dits and crit­ics — and some Trump sur­ro­gates — are happy to call it a Mus­lim ban. This sends a mes­sage to Trump’s vot­ers that he is a de­ci­sive leader who has ful­filled his prom­ise, even though he has done no such thing. “I love it when they bash him, be­cause it tells me he’s do­ing the right thing,” a Wis­con­sin re­tiree told the New York Times.

The ac­tual ex­ec­u­tive or­der is some­thing of a mess. How­ever, act­ing at­tor­ney gen­eral Sally Yates, by declar­ing that she would not de­fend the or­der, es­sen­tially dared Trump to fire her — an in­vi­ta­tion no pres­i­dent would have re­fused. At that mo­ment, the story shifted away from the or­der to­ward dark warn­ings of a “Mon­day Night Mas­sacre,” even though noth­ing close to Nixon’s shock­ing 1973 se­rial fir­ings had oc­curred. (Yates was an Obama ap­pointee and on her way out any­way.)

There are other ex­am­ples. On MSNBC last month, Rachel Mad­dow de­cried the “takeover” of the Voice of Amer­ica by the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion. The story was ter­ri­fy­ing: Trump now has his own pro­pa­ganda out­let!

I, too, was up­set about the dis­so­lu­tion of the VOA board and the shift to­ward us­ing pres­i­den­tial ap­pointees in place of a bi­par­ti­san group of gover­nors. I was up­set about that, in fact, last year, when that pro­vi­sion was slipped into the Na­tional De­fense Au­tho­riza­tion Act. Mad­dow’s story, re­ally, boiled down to: Pres­i­dent will ap­point peo­ple he is legally re­quired to ap­point. But that didn’t stop my email in­box and Twit­ter stream from fill­ing with panic about how “Trump has taken over Amer­i­can pro­pa­ganda.”

Also, Amer­i­cans and many of their me­dia out­lets seem rusty on the dif­fer­ence be­tween or­di­nary gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ees and the ex­alted class of po­lit­i­cal ap­pointees. A po­lit­i­cal ap­pointee rep­re­sents the ad­min­is­tra­tion and must speak with the pres­i­dent’s voice and in line with his poli­cies and pri­or­i­ties. These ap­pointees serve “at the plea­sure of the pres­i­dent,” and when ad­min­is­tra­tions change, they are ex­pected to sub­mit their res­ig­na­tions. If they are asked to stay on, that is a priv­i­lege but not a right. By con­trast, I am a ca­reer em­ployee who works in a spe­cific and con­tin­u­ing role as a pro­fes­sor for the Navy. I am not ap­pointed by a pres­i­dent, and I do not rep­re­sent any ad­min­is­tra­tion when I speak. (I also do not rep­re­sent any other agency of the U.S. gov­ern­ment, and when I write — like right now — I do so in my own ca­pac­ity as a scholar and cit­i­zen.)

Thus, Trump didn’t “fire” all the po­lit­i­cally ap­pointed am­bas­sadors, ef­fec­tive at high noon on Jan. 20. They were all re­quired to re­sign, as is nor­mal with ev­ery change of a chief ex­ec­u­tive, be­cause by law an am­bas­sador is the per­sonal rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the pres­i­dent. And yet, panic en­sued. The va­can­cies “could mean some top U.S. em­bassies are left with­out an am­bas­sador for months as Trump finds his foot­ing,” Politico re­ported. That was not a le­git­i­mate con­cern. Em­bassies have kept their lights on; the heads of mis­sions rou­tinely step in, as do act­ing sec­re­taries and se­nior civil ser­vants, dur­ing gaps in ap­point­ments.

Like­wise, when the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion ac­cepted the res­ig­na­tions of four State De­part­ment po­lit­i­cal ap­pointees, there was an ex­plo­sion of con­cern. “It’s the sin­gle big­gest si­mul­ta­ne­ous de­par­ture of in­sti­tu­tional mem­ory that any­one can re­mem­ber, and that’s in­cred­i­bly dif­fi­cult to repli­cate,” David Wade, the de­part­ment’s chief of staff un­der then-Sec­re­tary of State John Kerry, told The Wash­ing­ton Post’s Josh Ro­gin. That fear, too, was com­plete non­sense. For­eign Ser­vice of­fi­cers with decades of ex­pe­ri­ence still work at the State De­part­ment and have still been re­port­ing for duty.

And what about the ap­point­ment of se­nior ad­viser Steve Ban­non to the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil? The early nar­ra­tive was that Ban­non was “re­plac­ing” the chair­man of the Joint Chiefs, a claim that is flatly silly since the chair­man is, by law, a statu­tory ad­viser and can­not be “re­placed.” How­ever, the law al­lows the pres­i­dent to au­tho­rize mem­bers of his per­sonal staff to at­tend coun­cil meet­ings and to have a voice in their de­lib­er­a­tions. The Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil ex­ists to serve the pres­i­dent; it has no statu­tory max­i­mum size, and no one was “re­plac­ing” any­one. It is also pos­si­ble, as has hap­pened in other ad­min­is­tra­tions, that the coun­cil will not be that im­por­tant and that real power over na­tional se­cu­rity will rest in more in­for­mal mech­a­nisms in the Trump White House.

It is per­fectly rea­son­able to ar­gue that po­lit­i­cal ad­vis­ers should be kept off the coun­cil, and it is wor­ri­some, at least to me, to see the roles of se­nior mil­i­tary and in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials scaled back. Right now, how­ever, we are hav­ing very few such dis­cus­sions. Trump crit­ics in­stead are in a full-blown out­rage over the re­al­ity that pres­i­dents can pretty much staff the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil the way they want — which has al­ways been the case — thus chas­ing down a blind al­ley while leav­ing aside far more im­por­tant points.

This was not the first di­vi­sive elec­tion in the United States, and it will not be the last. Amer­i­cans, to an un­healthy ex­tent, have al­ways re­garded ex­ec­u­tive power with both fear and rev­er­ence. An­drew Jack­son, le­gal scholar James Kent wrote in 1834, was a “de­testable, ig­no­rant, reck­less, vain and ma­lig­nant tyrant,” the prod­uct of a fool­ish ex­per­i­ment in “Amer­i­can elec­tive monar­chy.” Pres­i­den­tial his­to­rian Ed­ward Cor­win once re­ferred to Abra­ham Lin­coln as “a dic­ta­tor even ex­ceed­ing the Ro­man model.”

These are real crit­i­cisms rooted in ex­pe­ri­ence. Jack­son was, in fact, vain and reck­less; Lin­coln sus­pended habeas cor­pus dur­ing the Civil War, a de­ci­sion not over­turned (and the pe­ti­tion­ers not freed) un­til 1866, when the repub­lic was once again safe. The abuse of pres­i­den­tial power is a con­tin­u­ing risk in a sys­tem of sep­a­rated pow­ers, re­quir­ing the great­est vig­i­lance on the part of the me­dia, Congress and or­di­nary cit­i­zens.

But a con­tin­ual state of panic serves no pur­pose and will even­tu­ally numb vot­ers and their in­sti­tu­tions to real threats when they in­evitably arise. Trump is, with­out doubt, the most un­usual chief ex­ec­u­tive in Amer­i­can his­tory. He has promised to do many things, some of which are al­most cer­tainly im­pos­si­ble and a few of which are prob­a­bly un­con­sti­tu­tional. In the mean­time, he won his elec­tion fairly — as de­ter­mined by the elec­toral col­lege and cer­ti­fied by Congress — and he is thus man­dated to staff and run a su­per­power.

Whether he will do so wisely or con­sti­tu­tion­ally re­mains to be seen, but the le­git­i­mate con­cerns of the pres­i­dent’s crit­ics are not well served by at­tack­ing the nor­mal func­tions of the ex­ec­u­tive branch merely be­cause those pow­ers are be­ing ex­er­cised by some­one they op­pose.


Demon­stra­tors gather near the White House on Jan. 29 to protest Pres­i­dent Trump’s ex­ec­u­tive ac­tions on im­mi­gra­tion. Such protests are part of what Trump’s op­po­nents are call­ing the re­sis­tance.

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