It Isn’t Just Trump’s Behavior

Miles Taylor, chief of staff to U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, was the author of “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration,” a 2018 New York Times essay published anonymously that led to a subsequent book, A Warning, also published anonymously. The essay was scathing, opening with an attack both on President Trump’s intelligence and his White House: “The dilemma — which [Trump] does not fully grasp — is that many of the senior officials in his own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.”

The purpose of the essay is still debated, even after Taylor came forward as the author this week. Taylor distanced himself from non-conservative critiques of the Trump administration and lauded the administration’s conservative accomplishments, like “effective deregulation, historic tax reform, a more robust military and more.” Few Democrats were interested in this praise; the Trump administration rolled back environmental protections, cut taxes on the wealthy and ballooned debt spending, and has poured trillions into the military seemingly just so he can say he did. But Taylor felt it necessary to say that the Trump administration was accomplishing these “bright spots… despite – not because of – the president’s leadership style, which is impetuous, adversarial, petty and ineffective.”

To be clear, ours is not the popular “resistance” of the left. We want the administration to succeed and think that many of its policies have already made America safer and more prosperous.

I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration,
September 5, 2018

Taylor’s effort to promote both his conservative credentials and boost the administration’s accomplishments shows that his target audience was surely conservatives. But what, exactly, did he object to about Trump?

As deputy chief of staff at Homeland Security, Taylor had been integral to implementation of the administration’s incredibly cruel child separation policy. His boss had personally agreed with a decision to bar transgender servicemembers from serving in the military. She also said that “it is not that one side is right and one side is wrong” which sounds maybe okay but the context of that quote is the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

At what point, then, did Taylor disagree with the administration? Was child separation, discrimination against American servicemembers, and white supremacy okay, but it was really too bad that Trump had a bad temper? “This is the problem with a lot of Republicans, including in the House,” Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-CA) told the New York Daily News in response to the original essay, “they privately say he’s wrong, but they don’t do anything about it.”

Taylor claimed that it was foreign policy where the U.S. had what he called “a two-track presidency.” Trump would make grand proclamations about what he imagined the U.S. wanted or was going to do while administration officials would largely implement a foreign policy similar to his predecessor, Barack Obama (and, it has been noted, one that would be similar to Joe Biden’s). Although foreign policy is where the office of the president has the most power, Trump himself is disinterested in foreign policy, and that gives others in the administration more leeway to operate in the way they think is best.

It isn’t in foreign policy where most people feel Trump is attacking American institutions. It’s in domestic policy. In his 2018 essay, Taylor doesn’t spend too much time on domestic policy except to laud the administration’s accomplishments. He focuses instead on Trump’s behavior; the behavior is the problem, not the policies.

“This is the problem with a lot of Republicans, including in the House: they privately say he’s wrong, but they don’t do anything about it.”

In 2019, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough claimed that Republican lawmakers preferred Vice President Mike Pence to Trump: “If there were a secret ballot in the Senate this morning, Mike Pence would be president by noon.” Scarborough, a former Republican, argued that Pence would bring a “return to conservative principles.” Taylor, too, lamented, “the president shows little affinity for ideals long espoused by conservatives: free minds, free markets and free people. At best, he has invoked these ideals in scripted settings. At worst, he has attacked them outright.”

Which conservative leader does espouse these views? Pence is a well-known advocate of conversion therapy (though Pence says he supports counseling and not the more aggressive versions, and has tried to distance himself from the term “conversion therapy”), which seems to go against the idea of “free people”. Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has backed billions in federal aid and tax credits to prop up coal mining in the face of competition from other energy sources, which isn’t very “free markets” of him. And in response to Taylor’s essay, Sen. Rand Paul suggested the White House use a lie detector to figure out who the author was, which doesn’t sound super “free minds.”

The Trump administration has created a crisis for modern American conservatism. So much of what it professes to be about fell apart when Trump became its standard-bearer, tossing the rule of law aside in favor of obedience and loyalty (Trump suggested that writing the essay, or perhaps the disobedience it confirmed, was an act of “TREASON?”). But Taylor and others can’t seem to offer up a better version of conservatism. Surely neither his essay nor his book were really written for Democrats or those further left, since it proclaims the virtues of his own conservatism. But at the same time, it can’t be written for those who think Trump is doing well, because even by 2018 it was clear that the cult of personality around Trump was what fueled his ambitions and that had been called out by a sitting Republican Congressman months before “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration” was published.

“The danger, I believe, of Donald Trump is he is autocratic in style.”

– Rep. Mark Sanford (R-FL), July 2018

Rather than simply calling Trump erratic or badly behaved, in that piece Republican Congressman Mark Sanford said Trump was an authoritarian who posed a risk to American democracy. Sanford, who had recently lost a primary to a Trump-backed challenger, warned that Republicans were “playing with fire” when it came to their willingness to support Trump as a means to accomplish their own goals.

There is a big gulf between calling Trump “impetuous, adversarial, petty and ineffective” and calling him “autocratic.” One suggests that the president is merely childish and helpless while the other calls him a danger. Of course, if you did think the president was an autocrat, being a member of his administration doesn’t seem like the morally optimal thing to do. Taylor’s claims to be part of the “resistance” don’t line up with what he did, because he took actions to shore up the autocratic, authoritarian Trump regime.

At the time he wrote the essay, his immediate boss was Chief of Staff Chad Wolf, now the unlawfully-serving Secretary of Homeland Security who sent federal agents into Oregon as a show of force against protests over police brutality. Above Wolf was Nielsen; Taylor helped Nielsen prepare for a Senate hearing where she lied about the origins of the administration’s family separation policy. Also during Taylor’s tenure, Trump administration officials lied about the number of suspected terrorists apprehended on the Mexican border using data obtained from his department.

“The overall sense is of a cabal of patriots who are in shock at what is happening around them… They excel at stymying the president and yet, miraculously, evade responsibility for his administration’s moral failings,” wrote Alex Shephard for The New Republic after Taylor’s identity was revealed. “It is a portrait curiously at odds with much of what is happening in many departments under Trump. This is, after all, a government in which the Postal Service is barely functioning and the Department of the Interior is pushing Trump ads on its Instagram account. Taylor was offering a warning but also a reason to breathe easy: There are people working behind the scenes to make sure that Trump only fucks stuff up so much.”

Knowing that Taylor was a highly placed individual in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security at a time when the department was flexing its ability to act with relative impunity (Taylor left DHS in 2019, prior to this year’s nationwide protests over police violence), makes his whole essay far less compelling than if it had turned out that he was someone who was actually trying to resist the Trump administration’s authoritarian urges. As it happens, Taylor was more worried about the lack of social niceties than the threat Trump might actually pose to democracy.

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