Scheming demons dressed in kingly guise
Beating down the multitude, and scoffing at the wise
–Rush, “A Farewell to Kings”
In a 1523 letter to his friend Francesco Vettori, Machiavelli famously asserted that he loved his “fatherland more than his eternal soul.” If we massage this text a bit, as political theorists often have, we get the so-called dirty hands thesis, the idea that a prince or political leader ought to be willing to sacrifice his eternal soul or at least his moral integrity to enhance the power of his polity. You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, and what’s breakfast without eggs? You can’t run a government without breaking heads, and what’s life without government? Vegans and anarchists might dispute the implications of those questions, but most people are neither.
That said, even those of us who are neither vegans nor anarchists have some moral integrity. So I suggest that we turn Machiavelli on his head: a person of integrity loves her eternal soul, or even just her mortal moral agency, more than she loves her native fatherland–or motherland. At a certain point, she draws the line and refuses to get her hands dirty in the muck that goes by the name “the good of all.” I don’t mean that properly conceived, the common good is an unworthy aim. I mean that it’s not always properly conceived.
I think sensible people have by now, however belatedly, come to the conclusion that Donald Trump’s recent press conferences render him dangerously unfit for the presidency. When the President of the United States starts spouting logorrheic, unintelligible drivel about injecting bleach into human bodies, or curing COVID19 by shining ultraviolet light into them,* the time has come to ask how to get this man out of power without on the one hand resorting to desperate expedients like assassination or coup, or on the other relying on slow-moving/unfeasible ones like waiting for the general election, re-impeaching him, or invoking the 25th Amendment.
If you’re one of those people who thinks I’m misrepresenting the president’s claims, or thinks that his malfeasances are no big deal, just “Trump being Trump,” you’re not part of my target audience. I’m addressing myself to people who regard Donald Trump as having reached peak batshit craziness, agree that his doing so has become an intolerable danger to the people of the United States (and much of the rest of the world), and are wondering what to do about it. I feel bad for people like Bandy X. Lee, who’s been on a crusade to make the preceding point for years. It must be demoralizing to have worked so hard to be so reasonable, to be derided and ignored for so long, and then see that people will kinda start to get the point when mass death finally stares them in the face. But better late than never.
The “bleach episode” proves beyond reasonable doubt that rational people cannot constrain Donald Trump. In that respect, he really is like Hitler. Apologies to anyone who regards that as an exaggeration, but it isn’t one. Hitler had not, by 1936, gotten quite as sociopathic as Donald Trump has three years into his presidency. Granted, Hitler was en route to places Donald Trump has not gone. But no one really knows where Donald Trump is capable of going. That’s been the whole problem with Donald Trump from Day 1. Anyone willing to make excuses for him at this point is willing to leave huge amounts of power in the hands of someone flying blind through epidemiological and political space with terminus unknown, up to and including wars of aggression, mass death, and fascism.
It’s quixotic to sit around asking whether we have social scientific evidence to prove that character is a proxy for policy in the case of a person like Donald Trump. The problem we face is that we have no idea what is a proxy for policy in this case. The situation is so fucked up and so unprecedented that we couldn’t possibly get the kind of data or studies that would satisfy the canons of social science. Only a person completely out of touch with reality would think that we need to wait that long–when “wait that long” could plausibly mean “sometime after the end of his second term.”
It is likewise a moot point to put one’s hands on one’s hips and declare that you know, we wouldn’t be in the mess if only the president didn’t have so much power, or some such nostrum. Even if true, it doesn’t tell us what to do with the guy who actually has the power, unless the solution is to recite nostrums about why he shouldn’t have it. Like prayer, that seems harmless. But like prayer, it won’t have any effects in the world external to the person engaged in it.
An indication of the right approach was recently taken in a small but effective way by the journalist Kaitlan Collins. Faced with an unjustified command by Trump, Collins simply held her ground and refused. That kind of courage deserves widespread commendation and emulation. There is a case to be made for compliance even with immoral laws or orders, up to a point. We are now past that point, at least when it comes to this president: civility, respect, charitable construals of nonsensical claims, and compliance are at this point simply Trump’s means of exploiting, abusing, and victimizing us. He has to be forced to back down at every turn. He should be harassed, ridiculed, yelled at, yelled down, interrupted, and above all, openly defied in just the way Collins did. That’s the only way in which he can be stopped. And he must be stopped.
But defiance by journalists will only have limited utility. The real center of gravity is within the government (“the Deep State”), and in particular, from within the part of the government managing the federal government’s response to the pandemic–the likes of Fauci, Birx, Redfield, and Hahn. These people in particular have to stop deferring to Trump, and simply do their jobs as though he didn’t exist.
I was initially tempted to say that they should quit, but a better idea would be for them to continue working in a way that risks, even tempts, termination. As I say, they should do their jobs as though he doesn’t exist: say what needs to be said, do what needs to be done, ignoring him. Since he does exist, of course, he will do what he can to get in their way. But so far, he seems to grasp that his political life rests in their hands: he can’t remove them for fear of being left completely adrift with a problem he knows he can’t solve without them.
That’s the very weakness that demands aggressive exploitation. If Trump pushes back on the defiance of his medical advisers, they should openly defy him–in effect (though not in those words) tell him to go and fuck himself. (They need not openly show defiance or anger; my point is that they should not try to fool anyone with furtive or secret actions, and should make no compromises with his irrationality.) If he threatens any one of them with termination, they should all simultaneously counter-threaten with resignation. They should play this game of chicken until they win. Notice that the game only works if some critical mass of advisers functions as a striking union might, in solidarity and in concert with one another–no scabs, no free-riders, just concerted opposition to The Rat.** Like striking workers everywhere, the people defying Trump have to realize that he needs them more than they need him.
There are serious risks here. If Trump fires them (which he could), we would be left without leadership in the pandemic. That’s a frightening prospect. But de facto, we are currently without leadership in the pandemic. The leadership we thought we had–the leadership of responsible people constraining the president–is as much of an illusion as Hindenburg’s and the German nationalists’ constraint of Hitler in 1933. That gambit may have worked for awhile, in a contestable sense of “worked,” but it’s got nowhere left to go. You can’t constrain Trump by appeasing him. You can only constrain him by resisting him. There is now a critical mass of resistance that, if exercised, can succeed. It should be exercised so as to succeed.
Donald Trump has to go. We can’t kill him.*** We can’t impeach him. We can’t remove him. We–or rather, those in the relevant places–have to defy him, and push him, step by step, away from the levers of power. The longer he holds power, the greater the danger we face. At a certain point, we have to figure out that as dangerous as the virus is, he is the real danger we face–the single biggest obstacle to our fighting COVID19 with all the powers at our disposal. We need to look that danger in the face, stare it down, and take it out, before he does the same to us. Because when push comes to shove for him, he will take us out: he will sacrifice our lives to the whim of the moment. Push has already come to shove for us. It’s time to push back as hard as we can.
*Thanks to Steven Postrel for the observation that there are in fact FDA approved devices that claim to do what Trump asserted. The fact remains that the claim was, as stated, egregiously irresponsible.
**The critical mass need not be so large as to require mass resignations from the relevant federal agencies. The rank and file can and should continue working; some part of upper executive management should resign.
***So don’t accuse me of inciting, recommending, or planning violence. I’m not.
Thanks to Maria Venardis for very useful comments on an earlier version of this post.