Donald Trump’s aides have been angry with him frequently — indeed, usually — since the beginning of his presidential campaign. But they have rarely registered their dismay as nakedly as they did Tuesday night, when he spontaneously altered a plan to deliver remarks on infrastructure without taking questions into a free-form defense of white supremacists. One official told NBC News that Trump had “gone rogue.” Mike Allen reports that chief economic adviser Gary Cohn is “between appalled and furious,” and that there is a danger one or more high-level officials could resign. Chief of Staff John Kelly’s disgust was registered on his face:
It is impossible to recall a presidential aide contemporaneously broadcasting his disgust with his own president.
But it is important to understand the precise nature of their distress. It is emphatically not because they are shocked to learn their boss is a racist, a fact that has been established through numerous episodes, such as Trump’s insistence a Mexican-American judge was inherently biased against him, his call for a Muslim immigration ban, his slander of Ghazala Khan, and so on. They are angry that Trump revealed beliefs they wish to keep hidden. “Members of the president’s staff, stunned and disheartened, said they never expected to hear such a voluble articulation of opinions that the president had long expressed in private,” reports the New York Times.
This raises the question once again of why they are working for Trump at all. A legitimate public rationale can be made for serving the administration in certain roles. The federal government plays a vital role in domestic and global security, Trump is a dangerous and erratic figure, and somebody needs to try to steer him away from decisions that would provoke unalterable tragedy. That justification covers serving Trump as a foreign-policy adviser, or as homeland security and disaster-response officials.
But what justification can the domestic and political advisers offer? Any benefit they can get by helping produce what they regard as better policies is surely offset by the cover they (and their policy successes, should they produce any) provide him.
Suppose yesterday’s remarks had gone off as planned. Suppose Trump had pushed his message of infrastructure. Suppose further every subsequent step also worked as planned — Trump manages to build political support for the huge infrastructure build-out he campaigned upon, and created millions of jobs and the backdrops for several powerful reelection campaign ads. All they would have done is fulfill Steve Bannon’s dream of a worker’s party uniting economic populism with ethnonationalist grievance. “Shipyards, ironworks, get them all jacked up,” he told Michael Wolff after the election, “We’re just going to throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks. It will be as exciting as the 1930s, greater than the Reagan revolution — conservatives, plus populists, in an economic nationalist movement.”
Trump certainly has revived certain aspects of the political excitement of the 1930s: Nazi torchlight parades, presidential attacks on the media as enemies of the people, and street battles between armed extremist factions. He has not yet revived the infrastructure build-up that supplied a great deal of the Nazi party’s political capital. The apparent objective Trump’s domestic advisers hope to achieve is to create a political constituency for a president they consider racist, while concealing his racism as best as they can.
A West Wing official tells the Times that Trump has “expressed sympathy with nonviolent protesters who he said were defending their ‘heritage.’” (This is a rally that began with chants like “Jews will not replace us.”) Preventing Trump from doing something damaging is a legitimate and even noble calling. But that admirable motivation can easily mutate into rationalization. Are Trump aides really working to protect the country from him? Or are they working to keep the country from seeing his real nature?