How should one resist the Trump administration? Well, that depends on what kind of threat Donald Trump represents.
It could be that the primary Trump threat is authoritarianism. It is hard to imagine America turning into full fascism, but it is possible to see it sliding into the sort of “repressive kleptocracy” that David Frum describes in the current Atlantic — like the regimes that now run Hungary, the Philippines, Venezuela and Poland.
In such a regime, democratic rights are slowly eroded. Government critics are harassed. Federal contracts go to politically connected autocrats. Congress, the media and the judiciary bend their knee to the vengeful strongman.
If that’s the threat, then Dietrich Bonhoeffer is the model for the resistance. Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor who became an anti-Nazi dissident. Between 1933 and his capture in 1943, he condemned the Reich, protested the persecution of the Jews, organized underground seminaries and joined the German resistance. In the face of fascism, he wrote, it was not enough to simply “bandage the victims under the wheels of injustice, but jam a spoke into the wheel itself.”
If we are in a Bonhoeffer moment, then aggressive nonviolent action makes sense: marching in the streets, blocking traffic, disrupting town halls, vehement rhetoric to mobilize mass opposition.
On the other hand, it could be that the primary threat is stagnation and corruption. In this scenario, the Trump administration doesn’t create an authoritarian regime, but national politics turns into a vicious muck of tweet and countertweet, scandal and pseudoscandal, partisan attack and counterattack.
If that’s the threat, St. Benedict is the model for resistance. Benedict was a young Umbrian man who was sent to study in Rome after the fall of the empire. Disgusted by the corruption all around, he fled to the wilderness and founded monastic communities across Europe. If Rome was going to sink into barbarism, then Benedictines could lead healthy lives and construct new forms of community far from the decaying center.
If we are in a Benedict moment, the smart thing to do is to ignore the degradation in Washington and make your contribution at the state and local levels.
Karlyn Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute notices that some of the interns in her think tank are thinking along Benedictine lines. In years past they were angling for career tracks that would land them in Washington, but now they are angling to go back to the places they came from.
The third possibility is that the primary threat in the Trump era is a combination of incompetence and anarchy. It could be that Trump is a chaotic clown incapable of conducting coherent policy. It could be that his staff members are a bunch of inexperienced second-raters.
Already the White House is back stabbing and dysfunctional. The National Security Council is in turmoil. Mussolini supposedly made the trains run on time, but this group couldn’t manage fascism in a phone booth.
It could be that Trumpism contains the seeds of its own destruction. The administration could be swallowed by some corruption scandal that destroys all credibility. Trump could flake out in the midst of some foreign policy crisis and the national security apparatus could have to flat out disobey him.
If the current reign of ineptitude continues, Republicans will eventually peel away. The Civil Service will begin to ignore the sloppy White House edicts. The national security apparatus will decide that to prevent a slide to global disorder, it has to run itself.
In this scenario, the crucial question is how to replace and repair. The model for the resistance is Gerald Ford: a decent, modest, experienced public servant who believed in the institutions of government, who restored faith in government, who had a plan to bind the nation’s wounds and restored normalcy and competence.
Personally, I don’t think we’re at a Bonhoeffer moment or a Benedict moment. I think we’re approaching a Ford moment. If the first three weeks are any guide, this administration will not sustain itself for a full term. We’ll need a Ford, or rather a generation of Fords, to restore effective governance.
When this country was born, several of the founders wanted to feature Moses on the Great Seal of the United States. They didn’t want to do it because he liberated his people from tyranny. That was the easy part. They wanted to do it because he bound his people to law.
Now and after Trump, the great project is rebinding: rebinding the social fabric, rebinding the government to its people, and most of all, rebinding the heaping piles of wreckage that Trump will leave in his wake in Washington. Somebody will have to restore the party structures, rebuild Congress, revive a demoralized Civil Service.
These tasks aren’t magic. They are for experienced professionals. The baby boomer establishment polarized politics, lost touch with the voters and paved the way for Trump. We need a new establishment, one that works again.
David Brooks writes for The New York Times.