Let’s Cut the Anonymous Author Some Slack

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Everyone seems to agree on one thing about the anonymous Donald Trump administration official whose New York Times op-ed was Topic A for 36 hours, which is a pretty long time in Trump-calibrated politics: He or she deserves no applause for the action. As the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan put it, “Political commentators of all stripes have made the point that the piece itself reeks of cowardice.” I’m not so sure.

It really does appear to be a consensus. Trump called the writer “gutless.” Melania Trump used the word “cowardly.” Anti-Trumper and estranged Republican David Frum also lectured him or her for not coming forward and then resigning. Dan Drezner mocked the piece. My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Francis Wilkinson, certainly no Trump fan, said, “Anyone who thinks they escape the moral and political taint of this administration by murmuring anonymous misgivings about Trump is a fool as well as a coward.” 

There’s plenty more where those came from.

The column was self-serving. Welcome to Washington. No one really gets to be a “senior administration official” without a healthy sense of how to advance one’s career. And I’m willing to stipulate that there’s less courage in filing an anonymous piece than leaving one’s job and putting a name on the item, although I’m sure that plenty of people would have still seen the act as one of self-promotion anyway (and it’s quite likely they would have been correct). 

So what? 

Failing to show maximum courage is no political sin. Neither is finding the intersection between self-interest and the common interest. 

And yes, I’m pretty confident that a New York Times op-ed from an administration insider stating that the president’s impulses are “anti-democratic” and that “his impulsiveness results in half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions” advances the national interest, at least a little bit, if one believes that reining in Trump is in the national interest. No, it won’t take Trump down. But the piece stirred up plenty of attention, and among other things fully validated reporting from plenty of neutral sources, including the new book from Bob Woodward that made very similar comments. 

Of course, most Trump fans will just treat all of it as fiction. Many Trump haters will be similarly unaffected. But on the margins, each tidbit adds up. A few Trump fans become less enthusiastic; a few skeptical supporters who were willing to overlook reporting from many media sources are a little more skeptical after hearing from another Trump insider; some mild Trump opponents become stronger opponents and more likely to show up to vote against Republicans; maybe even a small group of Trump haters are energized to work phone banks or make another contribution. 

Meanwhile, each piece of new evidence that this presidency is not normal helps to break down the powerful bias among the neutral news media to treat Trump as basically normal. It’s not that anyone who follows politics closely learned anything new here; even books such as Woodward’s are mostly useful for filling in the details, not for painting the very obvious broad picture. But media norms don’t let reporters treat the president as someone who is so unfit for office that his own staff talked about removing him even if they believe that’s true — at least, not until the evidence is overwhelming. So everything that pushes them along is helpful. 

Would I rather have seen the author acknowledge Trump’s use of bigotry instead of praising the administration’s results? Sure. Would I rather see some recognition that Trumpism has deep roots in a badly dysfunctional Republican Party, and that serious reforms are needed if it is ever going to return to being a healthy conservative party? Absolutely. The audience here seems to be everything-else-is-normal Republicans, and they’re part of the problem. Then again, if one believes that Trump as president is a particular threat to the nation over and above past Republican pathology — and I think he is — then getting some of that everything-else-is-normal crowd on board is pretty important to constraining Trump. 

Frum urges those in the administration who agree with Anonymous to “Speak in your own name. Resign in a way that will count.” But I doubt that any single senior administration official could do all that much more than this writer already has, short of it turning out to be White House Chief of Staff John Kelly or a member of the president’s family. Maybe it helps a little on the margins, and I’m not going to discount the importance of that. But again, I’m not going to be overly critical of someone who could have done more when others did far less.

I also won’t entirely discount the possibility that the author really is doing the nation a valuable service by staying in the administration and thwarting Trump’s worst impulses. Granted, we don’t know that; it’s quite possible this is the assistant to the deputy to the official who prevented war with Venezuela or a massacre in Syria or the demise of NATO. Or, for all we know, this could be a cabinet secretary who has had little to do with Trump but is mired in his or her own scandals. But in general, I have no problem with a handful of people in key positions remaining in place to prevent disaster, even if it also might protect Trump to some extent.

So I’m not ready to throw a parade for the anonymous author, but I think overall the nation is better off with this information, no matter how self-servingly presented, than without it. And I’m not going to bash anyone for that.

1. Must-read from Elizabeth Saunders at the Monkey Cage on administration personnel working against Trump

2. Melanye Price on changing black politics

3. Perry Bacon Jr. with a good, in-depth look at electability.

4. Nathan Gonzales has an early election-watching guide for November. 

6. My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Noah Smith on Canada’s economy and immigration.

7. And back at the Monkey Cage, Bethany Lacina on Star Wars fandom and diversity.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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