The Moral Conundrum of the Trump Era

Should Republicans quit and save themselves, or stay and try to save the rest of us?

Donald Trump waves from a red carpet, with photos collaged in of Ivanka Trump, Jeff Sessions, and Scott Pruitt on one side, and Jeff Flake, Nikki Haley, and Ben Sasse on the other side.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Mark Wilson/Getty Images, T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images, Riccardo Savi/Getty Images for Concordia Summit, Shealah Craighead/White House, William B. Plowman/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images, Aurora Rose/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images, and Lloyd Bishop/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images.

In some ways, last week was a banner week for limited acts of moral courage in the Trump era. In the Senate, Jeff Flake announced last Wednesday he would join Rand Paul and John McCain to oppose the nomination of Gina Haspel to lead the CIA, citing her ties to a torture regime in which she participated and then worked to obscure. She was still confirmed on Thursday, when six Democrats voted on her behalf.

Also on Wednesday, a host of Senate Republicans voted to save net neutrality. And Sen. Richard Burr joined his colleagues on the Senate Intelligence Committee to affirm that the Russians did in fact meddle in the 2016 elections, with the purpose of helping Donald Trump defeat Hillary Clinton, a rebuke to the House Intelligence report that claims that nothing of the sort occurred. Rex Tillerson subtly trolled the president with a commencement speech at the Virginia Military Institute, suggesting that lying is generally not respectable: “If our leaders seek to conceal the truth, or we as people become accepting of alternative realities that are no longer grounded in facts, then we as American citizens are on a pathway to relinquishing our freedom.” A clutch of Republicans in the Senate even criticized the White House for joking about John McCain’s death, though nobody managed to say as much to Trump directly.

Democrats are fond of asking one another how we will know when a genuine constitutional crisis might be upon us. Now some Republicans—despite the visceral joy they might experience when Democrats cluck about constitutional crises—are looking like they might be thinking some of the very same thoughts.

We’ve been hotly debating what moral courage among Senate Republicans and Trump administration officials could look like since Trump took office. Does it matter when Jeff Flake or Ben Sasse or Bob Corker criticize the president, if they’re doing it while either announcing their departure from the Senate or voting in lockstep with Trump’s agenda? Democrats have been split among those who salute these symbolic acts of courage as significant and those who find their protests to be little more than meaningless rhetoric.

The same questions apply when a former member of the administration raises the alarm right after their departure. When a Tillerson or a David Shulkin or a H.R. McMaster finally speak up, it’s hard not to wonder what they had been doing colluding all those months and whether what they’re offering now is just too little, too late. Those who slink away without saying much of anything, like Hope Hicks and Reince Priebus, seem not to be patriots under any definition of that term. And don’t even get me started on those who like to signal their virtue by letting us know that they would have resigned but then didn’t—including Jeff Sessions (a dozen times) or Don McGahn or John Kelly or Kirstjen Nielsenwho either did or didn’t threaten to resign, but at this point who even notices?

One can reasonably claim, as does Michael Gerson at the Washington Post, that intermittent outbursts of outrage from Republican leadership, untethered to any meaningful action, is cowardice. Leaving politics altogether, while criticizing your party’s devotion to a lawless authoritarian, feels like the least effective form of taking a stand. As Ezra Klein explained when Jeff Flake announced that he would stop being “complicit” by declining to seek re-election, “The souls of political parties are won and lost in elections. For the Republican Party to be recaptured by candidates like Flake and Corker requires candidates like Flake and Corker to face down the Trumpist faction of their base and win. That is the only way their colleagues will learn that the Trumpist faction of their base can be beaten.”

More simply, on most days, it would only take three or four Republican senators doing something, anything meaningful to hold Donald Trump’s excesses in check. But in refusing to act in concert, refusing to do more than slouch away, these half protesters are condemning Trump without doing a thing to stop Trumpism. Could this ever change? This week, as the president has all but declared that he thinks the Justice Department should serve as his personal staff and tasked them with investigating his own investigators, shouldn’t most patriotic Republicans be taking the question of what Trump going too far might look like very seriously?

Moral courage in this setting is almost impossible to define. It’s, in one way, completely understandable and actually quite a relief that so many good people have stayed on at the highest levels of the Justice Department, the State Department, and other agencies, despite the fact that the commander in chief has no compunction about insulting them, their mission, and their leadership almost daily. We need good people to stay on to act as a bulwark against cruelty and instability. But we also need good people to leave, and to speak out, to signal that cruelty and immorality are wrong.

The question remains the same. At what point are Trump’s attacks on his own law enforcement and national security apparatus potentially damaging enough to warrant some kind of response from patriots in both parties? And are the momentary tweets and the occasional rousing speeches and the retirements and subsequent book tours truly the kind of moral and effective responses that are warranted in times that feel imperiled as they now do?

I’ve been searching for some coherent analytic framework for this problem for more than a year—trying to understand what moral courage looks like when you’re contending with failing organizations and institutions. I was directed to the work of economist and iconoclast A.O. Hirschman, whose most famous book, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States, published in 1970, lays out a mechanism for clarifying whether participants in a failing organization or government should leave, stay on, or speak up. Hirschman was an extraordinary and broad thinker who was born in Germany, fled the Nazis, helped create an underground railway for refugees, and became a translator at Nuremberg. After he emigrated to the United States, he focused on development economics. But his thinking was playful and expansive, and he often applied purely economic models to other settings.

Hirschman starts Exit, Voice, and Loyalty from the proposition that economists don’t pay enough attention to failing businesses, governments, or organizations because they constantly assume that people will always act rationally. Noting that “under any economic, social, or political system, individuals, business firms, and organizations in general are subject to lapses from efficient, rational, law-abiding, virtuous, or otherwise functional behavior,” the slim book is a strangely timely meditation on whether in any failing system it’s better to cut and run or stick around and complain.

As the New Yorker’s Eyal Press has noted in applying Hirschman to the present day, there are masses of people, largely career government employees, who have chosen to exit Trumpland because they felt the core mission of their agency was threatened. He cites scientists working at EPA. I would add former Ambassador to Panama John Feeley and the other State Department staff who have either been pushed out or departed voluntarily. But as Press has also observed, “the impending departure of [Trump’s] few remaining Republican critics does not threaten his power. It will more likely augment and consolidate it, albeit at a potentially grave cost to the G.O.P., whose other leaders have, like Trump’s advisers, pointedly refused to criticize Trump’s unhinged rhetoric and indecorous conduct.”

Hirschman is thinking chiefly about failing business and less so about failing government institutions, and either way, he offers no definitive answer as to when it’s best to stay in your position but decry wrongdoing and when it’s best to pack it in and go home. But the book does offer up at least a partial answer to the question of how one can use one’s “voice” to improve any dire situation. The exit option generally decreases the possibility of using one’s voice, he writes, and Americans generally prefer to exit. However, he posits, the more loyal one is to an organization, the more likely one is to accept the “stick around and utilize your voice” option, rather than exit. Hirschman describes this as the “member-of-the-team trap,” which certainly covers Trump administration loyalists from Tillerson to Gary Cohn to John Kelly—all of whom seemed to believe that their continued presence brought stability.

But Hirschman also warns of unconscious loyalty to institutions that have changed or deteriorated in ways that go unrecognized by people within those institutions. And, he writes, loyalty increases as members feel that the costs of leaving their group is too high. As Hirschman explains:

The ultimate in unhappiness and paradoxical loyalist behavior occurs when the public evil produced by the organization promises to accelerate or to reach some intolerable level as the organization deteriorates; then, in line with the reasoning just presented, the decision to exit will become ever more difficult the longer one fails to exit. The conviction that one has to stay on to prevent the worst grows stronger all the time.

One might add that with continued participation in failing systems, the legal and political liability of those who have been personally compromised by association with Trump increases to the point that exit becomes impossible. The paradox, in part, as he lays it out, means that the worse things become with any organization, the less one is inclined to leave. Lest you become too terrified by that caution, though, Hirschman offers an argument for why this seemingly irrational behavior serves an ultimate good: “The more wrongheaded and dangerous the course of these states the more we need a measure of spinelessness among the more enlightened policy makers so that some of them will still be ‘inside’ and influential when that potentially disastrous crisis breaks out.”

Hirschman ends his meditation by reaffirming that there is no “optimal” mix of exit and voice, and deployment of both depends on the responsiveness of the organization itself. He also notes, perhaps presciently, that the only organizations in which neither exit nor voice is an option are “parties in totalitarian one-party systems, terroristic groups and criminal gangs,” because in such entities “exit is considered as treason and voice as mutiny.”

That brings us to the final paradox, as Hirschman observes, which is that America itself was founded on the principle that exit (i.e., from Europe) was inherently preferable to trying to change things from within. He writes that Americans are uniquely apt to simply exit any given environment rather than raise their voices and get into trouble. He connects this, in turn, to the American notion of evolutionary individualism, wherein successful people work themselves up the social and economic ladder. Indeed, I might add the 2018 gloss that it is the uniquely American cult of rugged individualism that allows members of a declining government system to make mighty speeches and write solemn books, saving their individual reputations, instead of sticking around and attempting to change government for the rest of us, who are stuck with the systems they broke.

It’s not yet clear to me what Hirschman would say about Trump’s enablers, who have stuck around long after it’s become manifestly clear that someone should have acted long ago and did not. Hirschman holds out the promise that “the jolt provoked by clamorous exit” can still prove beneficial, even late in the game. We may need to give up on the hopelessly compromised grifters who will never leave or give voice to opposition (Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, Jeff Sessions, Scott Pruitt). But we can and should look to what Hirschman calls the “spineless” and what we might more charitably classify as the secret patriots who could still stand up against the increasing assaults on the press, the Justice Department, and the separation of powers. This is the time for Sens. Sasse and Flake, for Rex Tillerson, Nikki Haley, and Don McGahn to think about what combination of exit and voice can make a meaningful difference if a real crisis were to happen. Or rather, when the real crisis happens—if we’re not there already.