Shadow Government

It’s Time for a New Kind of Resistance

Traditional opposition won’t work in the Trump era. Here’s what principled patriots need to do.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 20: President Donald Trump signs his first executive order as president, ordering federal agencies to ease the burden of President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act January 20, 2017 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Kevin Dietsch - Pool/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 20: President Donald Trump signs his first executive order as president, ordering federal agencies to ease the burden of President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act January 20, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch - Pool/Getty Images)

I’m happy to join my Obama administration friends at Shadow Government. But I wonder if this approach — Democrats from the old regime offering constructive criticism and advice to the new one — is right for the Trump era.

During the George W. Bush years, I condemned many of the then president’s policies. But I never saw him as wholly outside the norms of the country I love. I got to know members of his administration, tried to understand their point of view, and thought I could persuade them of mine, because I knew we basically shared the same aims — keeping America safe and free, while advancing our ideals and interests in the world. I have Republican friends who were often angry at President Barack Obama, while still recognizing him as a decent man dedicated to the same aims.

Our arguments about America’s role in the world have been primarily about means, not ends. Now we have a president who is challenging the ends — our support for allies and burden-sharing institutions, our commitment to human rights, our opposition to great-power aggression and spheres of influence, our belief that generosity is in the U.S. self-interest. Donald Trump is what American foreign policy has sought to counter for the last 70 years: an authoritarian leader who wants to disrupt global order rather than help maintain it.

Nothing in our recent historical experience prepares us for this. At the women’s marches on inauguration weekend, the focus was on Trump’s misogyny and threat to gender and racial equality, because these are real problems, but also because they are familiar to us in America. It’s hard to get our head around a president who uses the tactics of nationalist strongmen, or that the foundations of our democratic system — whose checks and balances depend on everyone agreeing to rules and facts Trump disdains — could erode as a result. We’ve had to consult advice columns by friends from countries like Russia, Turkey, and Egypt — where politics produces real carnage — to understand the risks ahead.

Earnest advice to the new president from policy experts is not what will help us in this situation. What is the point of urging him to reassure allies in Europe, for example, when the one consistent foreign-policy position he has taken in the last year has been alignment with our main adversary in Europe? What’s the point of giving serious advice to a White House more interested in making click bait than making policy? Trump’s whole method is to provoke conflict with experts, and with the fact-based analysis they purvey. When he says that 2 + 2 = 5, and if he can get his followers and “alternative” online network to agree, it solidifies their loyalty and his determination to stay the course.

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What we must do is this: 1) support the sane and competent people still in government, from career foreign service, military, and intelligence professionals to patriotic Cabinet officials, and encourage them to use their agencies’ legal authorities to the fullest to blunt directives from the White House; and 2) build the broadest political coalition in defense of American ideals we can — a coalition strong enough to deter Trump from acting on his worst instincts, and to project a better face of America to the world (as we did successfully last week in stopping an executive order on CIA black sites). Such an opposition plainly can’t consist of Democrats alone.

Us Democrats may think congressional Republicans were unfair to Obama; we may roll our eyes at their dance with Trump; and we can’t help being disappointed in them for being, well, Republican. But we should recognize the integrity that Sens. John McCain, Lindsay Graham, and Marco Rubio have shown on everything from torture to Russia to the defense of human rights. We can heartily agree with principled movement conservatives like Sen. Ben Sasse that “America is exceptional, because she is at her heart a big, bold truth claim about human dignity” and work with them to protect refugees, civil liberties, and constitutional checks and balances — even as we respect their differences with us on many issues.

We don’t need McCain to support the Iran deal, or Rubio to back engagement with Cuba, or Sasse to march with us in a pink pussy hat. The important thing is to know that we have more in common with each other than with the current occupant of the White House when it comes to defending the core ideals and institutions of this country. Only together can we make America safe for ordinary policy disagreements again.

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Photo credit: KEVIN DIETSCH/Pool/Getty Images

Tom Malinowski was assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor from 2014 to 2017. He previously served as Washington director for Human Rights Watch, as a senior director on the National Security Council staff, as President Bill Clinton’s chief foreign policy speechwriter, and as a speechwriter and member of the policy planning Staff at the State Department under Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Warren Christopher.

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