The day after the election, Penny*, a federal employee who works at the State Department, found out that the bid she and her partner put in on a house had been accepted. Up until the night before, she had been excited about the house. But Donald Trump’s victory was a shock, and suddenly, she had to reconsider: Is this where I want to be? Am I still going to be able to build a life here? “Had it been another person it wouldn’t have felt as severe,” Penny says. “When he was first elected, there was this reaction of, I can’t work for him. I can’t work in an administration that is contrary to my values and beliefs. I’m not going to work for someone who believes those things, on a basic level. Then I was going down the worst-case scenarios —what about the policy changes for me, what about the security given to me over the last administration on same-sex benefits as a federal employee? What if he takes those away?”
I came to Washington four months before the election of Barack Obama in 2008, and over the last eight years I’ve had a front-row view of the generation of civil servants who were drawn to Washington to work under his administration. By and large, they are smart, young, and idealistic about the role that government can play in the greater good. They are gay, racially and ethnically diverse, and socially progressive — even some of the more conservative among them. They were, apparently, the “Establishment” that Trump was promising to drain from the Washington swamp. Now, they’re watching as Trump appoints plutocrats with little or no relevant work experience to lead their agencies. It’s hard not to feel like Washington is about to be taken over by hostile invaders.
For Hannah, a federal employee at a major agency working on international environmental issues, the situation is more dire. Already, she’s been warned by colleagues that it is probably a good idea to start looking for a new job. Hannah specializes in one of the most important issues of our time: climate change. “I am one of the ‘uncertains’ — I don’t know if I will have a job under the new administration,” she says. “All choices seem to leave me cutting off my nose to spite my face. I joined the U.S. government to serve my country, as my father and grandfather had chosen to do through military service. I wanted to use my powers for good. Now I question if I can still do my work to the best of my ability — especially if funding is cut, our overseas diplomatic image is affected, or our leader comes out as a nonbeliever in environmental regulation and climate change.”
Of everyone I spoke to, Hannah summed up the difficult choice federal employees like her face most succinctly. “If I leave, I am creating a vacuum that may stay unfilled given hiring freezes, or may get filled by someone without the passion, understanding, or commitment to the cause. Either way, the work — the absolutely necessary and essential work — won’t get done,” she says. “This is all without even considering my own moral dilemma. The new administration, all the way to the top, is contrary to who I am as a person. I have no doubt, that what we will see is the purge of good, committed, and competent talent out of federal service.”
The cloud of uncertainty hanging over Washington’s federal workforce has barely dissipated since Trump was elected, a month ago. They’re still wondering what the impact of a president who ran a campaign that played to racism and bigotry will be. Add to that another major concern: Will President Trump mean an end to their careers? During the campaign, Trump pledged to institute “a hiring freeze on all federal employees to reduce the federal workforce through attrition,” a plan in keeping with recent Republican budget proposals to reduce the federal workforce by at least 10 percent.
If that were the only concern, it might be tolerable. The bigger worry is that they’re going to be asked to enact policy that defies their values, setting up a situation in which they have to leave their jobs. One survey of federal employees conducted earlier this year indicated that 25 percent of federal employees would quit if Trump were elected; 69 percent said they’d be embarrassed to have him as a president. Some of those employees are now struggling with whether it’s better to stay inside the government and try to be a force for good or quit now in protest.
The best they can do, for now, is to be hopeful that the president appoints sane, competent people to be their new bosses. “I’m both curious and concerned [about] who will become my next set of bosses. I wonder if the incoming political appointees will have a harmful agenda and if they will lack the necessary background and knowledge of what we do,” says Charles, who works at the Department of Energy.
“For the past eight years, I had a lot of respect for all of the political appointees in my agency and I felt very proud supporting President Obama and the leadership of my agency,” Charles says. “Considering Trump’s remarks and the widely held views of the Republican Party, I’m not sure if my work will be seen as valuable. In dealings with foreign government officials, I’m also concerned that we will lose their respect and that the U.S. will not be taken as seriously. I wonder if I’ll be constantly apologizing on behalf of the new administration. If things get really bad, I’ll surely be applying for new positions outside the government.”
All federal employees have to prepare themselves psychologically to serve under an administration they disagree with, says Michael, who works at the Department of Justice. But the assumption most of them have always had is that their next president would respect most of the basic democratic norms. “Basically, when you are in the civil service you know that at some point you might end up serving under an administration that you didn’t vote for and don’t agree with,” he says. “However, working under a Trump administration is not normal and never something that I could have imagined. The primary thing that makes me want to keep my job is knowing that it holds the place and keeps someone worse out of it.”
Terrie, who works at a financial agency, finds himself grasping for reasons to be optimistic. “Last week a colleague said to me: ‘I’m actually excited — I love a good fight!’ I know Trump will try to undermine many of President Obama’s achievements. Good people will leave or retire. But given that Donald has surrounded himself with Washington’s most incompetent losers, I’m confident that civil servants will be an effective check on his power. It’s just a bummer to know that we’ll be spending four years playing defense instead of offense.”
As for Penny, she is trying to be practical. Her policy area is pretty bipartisan, she thinks, so she’s at less risk than some of the people working directly on, say, women’s issues or LGBT rights. She also recognizes that Trump is coming to the job without experience, and having promised big changes — which means that so much is dependent on who he picks as secretary of State. This puts her in a strange position. “Now I find myself hoping Mitt Romney gets the spot, even though I clearly do not align with his values,” she says. “He is a bit more of a calm personality and an experienced person. I just don’t think he’d necessarily come in and ruin everything. If it’s someone who’s not crazy, we can work with that.”
It has been difficult to realize just how much she has had to lower her standards though. Penny worked under Secretary Clinton, and thought she was an incredible boss.
“There was a knee-jerk reaction of: I want nothing to do with this administration. But now it’s like, oh, no no no! We can’t have anyone do that because then there will be only crazy people left!” Penny says. “I’m not going to run. I’m going to stay, and I’m going to stay in the State Department.”
She and her partner have decided to go ahead with the purchase of the house.
*To protect the anonymity of the government employees I spoke to, all names have been changed.