In my last column, I described the fundamental continuity between the Obama and Trump administrations, at least when it came to national security. So far as one can tell from the public record, most of the national security policies set in motion by 44 have not changed under 45. As I wrote before, despite Trump’s “ferocious antipathy to all things Obaman…, the national security state under President Trump looks a great deal like the national security state under President Obama.”
Recently, this assessment received a boost from an unexpected source. The big news last week was the publication by The New York Times of an opinion piece authored by an unnamed “senior official” in the Trump administration who admitted “working diligently from within” to protect the country from the president “and his worst inclinations.” Horrified by Trump’s “amorality” and disgusted by his “impetuous, adversarial, petty and ineffective” leadership style, the author claimed to be one of many senior officials within the White House and executive branch who had joined “to preserve our democratic institutions” by “thwarting Mr. Trump’s more misguided impulses.”
Overwhelmingly, the reaction to this remarkable document has focused on the actors involved, all of whom have come under attack: the author as a duplicitous coward; the Times as a shameless conspirator; and the president as a dangerous buffoon. This was probably to be expected. As a country, we are given to personalizing events and seem to revel in the spectacle of mano-a-mano pugilism. Anyone who has ever watched a televised debate understands it is style that wins points, not substance.
But in the haste to declare a winner in this latest dustup, the discussion has missed the enduring significance of the column, which can be found in these overlooked lines: “This isn’t the work of the so-called deep state. It’s the work of the steady state.” The lesson of the op-ed is the extraordinary capacity for an ideological consensus to prevail, even in the face of remarkable political chaos.
The phenomenon is clear enough: Once a certain view of the world achieves the status of conventional wisdom, it becomes unquestioned and has a resilience and durability that protects it from dislocation. Participants from virtually the entire political spectrum accept the basic definition of the problem and agree on the essential elements of an appropriate response. Policy differences between left and right are apt to be granular rather than foundational. We have repeatedly seen evidence of this ideological convergence. One that leaps to mind is the determination by President Clinton to engorge the carceral state with the Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 and gut welfare with the Welfare Reform Act of 1996. By the time he acted, the Reagan-era approach to social welfare and crime policy had become hegemonic, making the range of acceptable policy options limited indeed.
For good or for ill, our approach to national security in the post-9/11 world has now achieved this hegemonic status. In addition to the policy convergence I described in my last column, it is probably no accident that the only example the anonymous author gave in the Times involved a disagreement between President Trump and “his national security team,” which “knew better” than Trump that Moscow must not be allowed to escape punishment for poisoning a former Russian spy in Britain. The “national security team” represents continuity.
Other evidence of this continuity in national security comes from a little noticed column by Michael Morrell, the Deputy Director of the CIA from 2010–2013. Morrell was a core member of the former president’s national security team and was twice the Acting Director of the CIA. On August 29, 2018, he published a column in The Washington Post congratulating the Trump Administration for apparently killing Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, an al-Qaeda bomb maker, in a drone strike late last year (I say apparently because al-Asiri has been reported dead before.) As Morrell writes,
This successful U.S. operation shows that, despite the partisan politics of Washington that dominates the daily news cycle, the men and women of the U.S. national security community continue to work hard and effectively to keep our country safe. I have no doubt that politics are not affecting those working on the front lines protecting the country.
It is tempting to dismiss such banality as simply a former player cheering the new team from the sidelines. But Morrell’s column takes on added significance in light of the anonymous op-ed. His confidence that “the national security community” presses forward despite the “politics” of the day is not only a celebration of steadfast continuity over radical disruption—that is, of the steady state—it is also very much what the anonymous author says about President Trump’s “national security team.”
Nor should this ideological continuity be confused with the routine rigidity of an entrenched bureaucracy. The bright-eyed visions of a campaign always dim when first they gaze upon the flinty reality of policy-making, and every president has bristled at the civil servants he cannot uproot. If the only contribution of the column were to point out that big ships turn slowly, it would not be worth much. But the anonymous op-ed describes something very different. The author is a senior official in the administration, who claims to be joined by many others of a similar rank.
This means they come not from the ranks of the bureaucracy but from the political class. These people owe their position to the president. Indeed, that is precisely why the author wants to remain anonymous, and why the president is so incensed. Almost by definition, these people are among the most partisan players in the executive branch. That they, rather than the civil service, would conspire to thwart the president and substitute Obama-era national security policies for those of their boss provides compelling proof of just how deep and broad this ideological consensus has become.
Of course, the fact that a particular view is hegemonic now does not mean it will be with us forever. After all, antipathy to women in the work force used to be hegemonic. Change is possible—perhaps even inevitable over the long term—but no one should underestimate just how long the long term might be. In this particular instance, we celebrate the stubbornness of hegemonic thinking because it saves us from Trump’s reckless idiocy. But more often, the general phenomenon works against progressive change, as the long, arduous road away from Jim Crow attests.
Today, President Trump has discovered how hard it is to alter a fixed approach to national security. But eventually, a different president may take office who does not share the hegemonic view of transnational terror. She may try to set national security on a different course, at which point she may well encounter a comparable “resistance.” We’ll see how the Times reacts then.