John Feffer | (Foreign Policy in Focus) | – –
The evidence is in: The “adults in the room” at the White House have enabled Trump’s worst impulses, not checked them. <
In the middle of September, Harvard University announced that it was inviting two controversial new fellows to the Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School: former Trump administration spokesman Sean Spicer and whistleblower Chelsea Manning. At the august institution, they would be joining Corey Lewandowski, one of Trump’s campaign managers, along with several Democratic Party operatives.
But it was not to be. Within a day of the announcement, Harvard rescinded Chelsea Manning’s invitation because of “controversy” attending the offer. Dean of the Kennedy School Douglas Elmendorf had this to say: “I see more clearly now that many people view a Visiting Fellow title as an honorific, so we should weigh that consideration when offering invitations.”
Strangely, the invitation to the thoroughly dishonorable Lewandowski did not seem affected by this rationale.
Harvard snubbed Manning in part because people like Mike Pompeo, current head of the CIA, cancelled an appearance at a Harvard forum, saying that “I believe it is shameful for Harvard to place its stamp of approval upon her treasonous actions.”
I’m not a big fan of WikiLeaks — even before its conduct in the 2016 elections — but I’d still be interested in hearing Chelsea Manning interact with other folks at the Kennedy School on questions of public service and morality. So, I’m upset at Harvard’s retraction of the invitation.
But what really bugs me is Harvard’s pandering to the Trump crowd as if they were legitimate political actors. They’re not. They’re collaborationists. They may or may not have collaborated with a foreign power against the United States (let the various investigating committees determine that). But I’m expanding the term here to mean that they are collaborating with a political figure — Donald Trump — whose behavior is inimical to American democracy.
Even if they aren’t ultimately thrown into jail for a variety of improprieties, the Trump collaborationists should be frozen out of the mainstream. Obviously I’m thinking about the future, since places like Harvard are always kowtowing to those in power in the present. But I’m looking forward to a day after, say, 2020, when America goes through its own de-Baathification process, and the leading lights of the Trump administration are purged from public life.
Okay, maybe you don’t want to go that far. De-Baathfication, after all, had lousy consequences for Iraq. Then let’s just use Harvard’s language but apply it more appropriately. “Many people view a Visiting Fellow title as an honorific, so we should weigh that consideration when offering invitations,” Elmendorf said. Those who collaborated with the Trump administration — those who served in high positions and profited materially and professionally from those positions — should simply not be honored. Even if a departing Trump pardons all his cronies, they should feel the sting of public exclusion.
Call it an anti-Trump blacklist, a political boycott comparable to the economic boycott of Trump products. Perhaps, you’re wondering, why I’m focusing on Trump. Many of his policies resemble those of previous administrations like those of Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush. Why not expand the boycott to include all the neoconservatives responsible for the Iraq War, among other catastrophes? It’s equally galling to see a war criminal like Elliott Abrams still accepted in polite company (and the Council on Foreign Relations).
I certainly disagreed with those figures and their policies. But this administration is different. Donald Trump has crossed the line on so many fronts. To ensure that his “innovations” in the realms of racism, misogyny, militarism, deception, secrecy, and the “deconstruction of the administrative state” do not become institutionalized in U.S. society requires not only broad-based condemnation but, eventually, public exclusion as well.
Adults in the Room
Shortly after the 2016 election, I was on an NPR program making my case for non-engagement with the Trump administration. The host was aghast: Didn’t I acknowledge the important of “adult supervision” in the White House? Wouldn’t it be better to have some sensible people near Trump to prevent him from flying off the nuclear handle?
And who would these adults be exactly, I retorted? Steve Bannon? Michael Flynn? I doubted that anyone who made it through the vetting process would necessarily qualify as an adult — at least in the sense that the NPR host meant — and even if such a grey eminence managed to get into the administration, he or she would likely be brought down to Trump’s level, not the other way around.
In a recent article in The New York Review of Books, James Mann traces the origins of the phrase “adults in the room” and its associated phrase of “adult supervision.” “Before Trump, this Washington lingo was usually a cover for policy differences,” Mann writes.
The “adults” were usually those who didn’t stray too far from the political center, however that was defined at the moment. Bernie Sanders has never qualified as an “adult” in the Washington usage of the word, although he is old enough to collect Social Security; nor did Ralph Nader; nor did Rand Paul, though he is old enough to perform eye surgery. What made them deficient was not their character or their immaturity, but their views.
Now, however, the phrase refers less to ideology and more to behavior. “For the first time, America has a president who does not act like an adult,” Mann continues. “He is emotionally immature: he lies, taunts, insults, bullies, rages, seeks vengeance, exalts violence, boasts, refuses to accept criticism, all in ways that most parents would seek to prevent in their own children.”
And thus, America is supposed to breathe easier because a trio of military men (John Kelly, James Mattis, H.R. McMaster) and an oil company executive (Rex Tillerson) are in place to rein in Trump’s more infantile impulses.
Moreover, a rogue’s gallery of non-adults have already departed the administration as a result of scandal or sheer incompetence: the aforementioned Sean Spicer, his almost replacement Anthony Scaramucci, Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka, Tom Price, Reince Priebus, Mike Flynn. Some, like Trump’s pick to head the Drug Enforcement Agency, withdrew from consideration even before he had to face withering questions about his support for the pharmaceutical industry. Surely the process works if it ejects such ridiculous figures as if they were tainted food in the political digestive tract.
Poking fun at this list of not-so-dearly-departed administration officials is too easy. More important is to demonstrate that the so-called adults are doing as much if not more damage to this country than the people who didn’t spend enough time in their jobs to screw things up royally.
So, before assigning blame on specific issues, let’s take a look at exactly how “adult” U.S. foreign policy has been over the last ten months. The United States has come close to tearing up the most important arms control deal of the last 25 years and edging closer to war with Iran. It has escalated the conflict with North Korea, which has raised the risk of a nuclear exchange. It has extended the longest American war by sending thousands more troops to Afghanistan. It has continued a misguided “war on terrorism” by supporting the Saudi devastation of Yemen, expanding the CIA’s capacity for conducting drone strikes, and helping to create the next generation of anti-Western jihadists in Syria and Iraq.
Beyond war and peace issues, it has pulled out of the Paris climate accord, withdrew from UNESCO, and reinstituted the “global gag rule” on abortion that will affect nearly $9 billion in U.S. funding of health initiatives around the world. It has continued to push for the building of the infamous wall on the border with Mexico, implemented several travel bans that disproportionately target Muslims, and gone after the Dreamers. It has proposed slashing foreign aid and State Department funding more generally. It has driven a stake through the heart of multilateralism.
What exactly is “adult” about this rash and destructive foreign policy? Yes, the world hasn’t been destroyed (yet) by nuclear war. But that’s a pretty low bar for the administration’s accomplishments.
Nor is it possible to argue that Trump himself is solely responsible for this foreign policy. Trump has only a vague grasp of foreign policy to begin with. His impulse is to oppose whatever the Obama administration put together — the Iran deal, participation in the Paris accords, various trade deals — even where there might be bipartisan support. To get any of these concrete policies implemented, Trump needs foreign policy professionals who can, at the very least, spell words correctly and use the proper names of foreign leaders. Trump relies on these “adults” not to restrain him but to implement his craziest ideas.
So, the only conclusion is that Tillerson, Mattis, McMaster, and Kelly have at least some, if not sole, responsibility for Trump’s foreign policy. Tillerson has presided over the destruction of the State Department — its personnel cuts, its circumscribed influence. Mattis has facilitated the significant budget increases for the Pentagon. McMaster has called the president’s tweets on North Korea “completely appropriate” and shares the president’s distaste for the Iran nuclear deal. John Kelly, in his former role as head of Homeland Security, was a big booster of the travel ban.
The evidence is in. Engagement at the very highest levels with the Trump administration has not tempered its worst qualities. If anything, these “adults” have been the chief enablers of this most reckless of presidents. They’ve given him the thinnest frosting of legitimacy. Moreover, even these so-called adults don’t rescue the Trump administration from being outside the norms of democratic discourse in this country.
The Politics of Lustration
In Eastern Europe, after the changes of 1989, the successor governments considered laws that would prevent those who collaborated with the Communist apparatus from serving in public office. These were controversial laws. It was often difficult to determine who had collaborated (as opposed to simply been accused of collaborating), and the process was quickly politicized by various political parties. Also, what constituted collaboration: membership in the Communist Party, working in the secret police, or just communicating with the secret police?
Still, lustration served as a way of distinguishing one era from another, of drawing what the Poles called a “thick line” between unacceptable collaboration and legitimate politics.
Lustration, like de-Baathification, was a deeply flawed process. But I’m attracted to the idea of eventually drawing a thick line between acceptable democratic practice and what the Trump administration has attempted to do in this country. I’m not talking about going after civil servants or low-level appointees. I’m certainly not talking about Trump voters. No, only the topmost officials in the administration, including his Cabinet of Horrors, should be subjected, post-2020, to an informal ban on further public service or the receipt of anything that might be construed an honor at a major institution.
Let me be clear. I’m not talking about Republicans. Many Republicans have already taken strong stands against Trump’s excesses, and many more will do so over the next three years. No, this campaign against collaborationists must be bipartisan. And the targets should certainly include registered Democrats like chief economic advisor Gary Cohn.
It won’t be a witch hunt. These people are extraordinarily rich and powerful. Their wealth and power will survive public shaming. But such a process will be absolutely important to discredit Trumpism not just as a belief system but as an ideology of power in which all methods of achieving wealth and position are legitimate.
We can’t put Trump and his claque into the stockade like in Puritan America. We can’t ostracize them — send them into foreign exile for 10 years, as the ancient Athenians did. But we can declare the collaborationists, including the “adults in the room,” an affront to human dignity and threaten to resign from, boycott, or malign any institution that dares to hire them, honor them, or work with them.
It’s something to look forward to during the long political winter ahead.
John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus and the author of the dystopian novel Splinterlands.