the swamp

Enablement

The tortured self-justification of one very powerful Trump-loathing anonymous Republican.

Illustration: Zohar Lazar
Illustration: Zohar Lazar

One afternoon this year, a Washington Republican wove through packs of tourists on the Mall and considered, as he often did, the collapse of America. How would all of this appear from a distance? He looked at the monuments, lucent in the sun, and pictured them disfigured by centuries of neglect and carnage. “Do you ever think about how, 2,000 years from now, people are going to do what we’re doing right now how they do it in the Forum in Rome?” he said. “Unless it’s destroyed, the ruins of the Jefferson Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial” — he gestured over there and over there, where the future ruins would be crawling with Jetsons — “they’ll have their headsets, which will probably be a chip in their brain.”

While growing up in a coastal suburb, he first visited Washington on a class trip. “I don’t think it was very inspiring,” he said. “I’m a pretty cynical person.” He was not raised in a political family. (“I’m like Athena, sprung from the head of Zeus,” he joked.) But he loved history, and he decided he wanted to arrive here someday, work for someone powerful, contributing to what will become history tomorrow. “Did I become a Republican in high school because I agreed with them? Was it because I was a contrarian, or did I think it was cool?” he said. “Who knows. It’s academic at this point, anyway.” He registered as a Republican, and as soon as he could, he took on jobs with mainstream conservatives, which felt, at the time, a world away from the fringe movements and personalities of the day, though he did observe them with interest.

He was of the Establishment but never deluded about the righteousness of his chosen side. George W. Bush, for instance, couldn’t earn his support because of “how badly he had fucked up” the Iraq War. “I still don’t think Republicans have been held to account completely for that,” he said. The election of the country’s first Black president gave life to right-wing extremism, and over eight years, polarization and negative partisanship — or hatred of the other side — accelerated as it hadn’t since the Gingrich revolution. By the end of the Obama administration, the party sounded more like Glenn Beck than Barry Goldwater, and although mainstream conservatives liked to pretend that the “crazies” said little about them, there was no denying that a fear of such people motivated much decision-making in Washington. This transformation all but invited what happened next.

Yet, eyes open, the Republican hadn’t anticipated a moral inconvenience like Donald Trump. “We were still fundamentally sane until Trump became the nominee,” he said of his party. Like just about everybody else, he didn’t believe Trump’s campaign was serious at first and didn’t believe he would win the Republican nomination. “I was one of those idiots. I remember telling family members there was zero percent chance,” he said. “When he became the nominee, I almost quit.”  But he didn’t. Instead, when the test came, he found it was possible — easy, even — to put up with what he didn’t agree with and didn’t want to be associated with in order to climb and survive in Washington.

He figured the era of Trump’s dominance of his party would be over in November 2016 when Hillary Clinton won the election, as most polling and most so-called experts suggested she would. That wasn’t so far away, and he was “too pragmatic” to leave a big job that he had worked hard to get, and that he liked having, over something that was only temporary. “You could just tough it out for a few months,” he said, recalling his thinking then. “I thought he would lose! I mean, everyone thought he would lose. The idea that he won is still shocking. This is a man who is so completely alien to what this country — the best principles of what this country is about. When I think about the fact that a hundred years from now, people will look back and say, ‘How the fuck did they think this was normal?,’ it makes me sad for the country. He’s a permanent scar on the face of our country.”

When people look back and say that, the “they” to whom they’ll be referring will include this Republican and others like him. Even as he likes to see himself as a passive player, unable to do much beyond enable the president, he knows that much is true. He understands that being carried along in the stream of narrow self-interest is what brought Trump to the presidency in the first place and has kept him there for almost four years. Officially, there’s little daylight between the party and the president, and this Republican works for one of the most powerful people in the country, which means, looked at in one way, that he’s working for Trump, too. “If you ask the average well-informed observer,” he said, “I think they would say most every Republican is working for him.”

This Republican works for one of the most powerful people in the country. Read that sentence again. Does it mean anything to you? When you think about it, it could mean almost anything, couldn’t it? He might work in the White House. He might be the vice-president. Or he might just work for the vice-president. He might be a member of the president’s Cabinet. Or he might work for a member of the president’s Cabinet. He might work on the president’s reelection campaign or for the Republican National Committee. He might be in congressional leadership or a member of the leadership’s staff. The chairman of a powerful congressional committee or the chair’s chief. The director of the deep state or the director’s intelligence agent. Someone you’d recognize or someone you’ve never heard of.

And that’s the idea, that the characterization of the source is so unspecific it barely even registers with the average reader. That you absorb the quote but think nothing of whom it came from. Newspapers and magazines (including this one) grant fuzzy veils of attribution: There are the many White House officials and senior White House officials, administration officials and senior administration officials, a group that includes, at a minimum, hundreds of people (most famously “Anonymous,” the author of the New York Times op-ed and subsequent book about the president’s enemies within his own ranks). And then there are even vaguer titles, like “Republican official” or “Republican operative” or even just “a Republican,” which could describe millions of people. Lindsey Graham is “a Republican.” Myles, my cousin who studies at Georgetown, is “a Republican” too.

Although Trump used to call New York tabloids under false names to plant positive stories about himself, he has often claimed that anonymous sources don’t exist. “I think writers make it up,” he told me as he sat behind the Resolute desk. “Generally, generally. Not in all cases, but generally.” (In response, I asked if the anonymous sources he cited himself were made up. He changed the subject without answering the question.) And why wouldn’t he sow such doubts? Blind-quote giving is older than Trump, but the dysfunctional dynamics that give rise to the practice have flourished during his administration. People want to influence policy, and Trump’s flexible belief system means they have cause to think they’ll be successful. Or they want to take credit for, or distance themselves from, something the White House has done. Or they want to weaken an enemy or puff someone up to deflect attention from themselves. Or they want to maintain good relations with reporters or keep up an image of sanity while publicly sacrificing nothing. For as long as Trump has been a fact of life in our politics, Washington Republicans have had an open invitation to vent anonymously in the media, where they reveal how they actually feel and what they really think but can’t express with their names attached if they want to keep the status they’ve earned.

You’ve read the stories that result from what these mysterious hordes of Republicans have to say about the pickle they’ve gotten themselves into with this president. The split between the official line and the whispered one is so dramatic that the phenomenon of rampant quiet discontent has been a subplot of the entire administration. There have been so many of these stories, in fact, you’ll likely recognize the formula: Trump does or says something at odds with conservative principles or common sense or basic decency; Republicans in positions of power are asked to respond, and they do their best to offer the usual nonresponse responses; but Republicans whose identities remain secret tell reporters that, in private, everyone is mad at the president, they think he’s an idiot, he’s screwing up, whatever. Liberals and moderate media critics get together to roll their eyes at this grand display of cowardice, enabled by reporters like me who live for drama and are thus part of the problem, while the president’s supporters cry fabulism or conspiracy or both. My own self-serving justification for granting anonymity to Republicans connected to or able to provide insight into this White House is simple: If the choice is between being lied to on the record or told the truth “on background” (the technical term for anonymity), I will choose the truth every time — even though every time I choose the anonymous truth, I make it easier for this system of secrecy to continue. Actually, that’s too generous. It’s more truthful to say I’m part of a system that enables political leaders to have it both ways, to indulge in ugliness and irresponsibility and to distance themselves from their own actions. The press provides the alibi as it prosecutes the case.

As he continued along the Mall, the Republican received a text from a New York Times reporter. He was being summoned as a source. “I do remember the first time I leaked something. It was almost inadvertent,” he said. “It ended up on the front page of a pretty big paper, and I remember thinking, Oh wow, you’re playing with live bullets now.” In the age of Trump, he knows that certain reporters are calling in search of BBs. “They want that kind of quote, a quote pointing out how awful this White House is,” he said. And he has learned how to craft a good one. When I called recently to ask what he thought about Trump’s altering his campaign operation, he compared it to “changing the kind of surfboard you’re going to use in a tsunami.” But the content of the quote itself is almost beside the point. What really makes the words pop is their capacity to sting the subject, the unanswerable question of who uttered them, and the suggestion of conflict among the very people who, the cliché goes, are supposed to have fallen in line behind the man who brought them all to power.

It’s easy to see what makes these quotes work for us in the media, and for readers, but what makes them worth giving? “One part of it is catharsis. I think that can be a dangerous reflex just in general, giving in to catharsis,” the Republican said, explaining what he gets out of engaging in behavior that would probably get him fired were anyone to find out. “Some of it is actual anger that the White House has fucked up something again.” And besides the adrenaline rush of covertly influencing the public record, he’s fascinated by the media itself. He paused. “It’s fun.” He paused again and then, with a shrug, said, “I don’t know. I don’t put a lot of thought into it.”

Republicans approve of Donald Trump’s performance as president by a wide margin — some-where in the range of 87 percent, though Trump would have you believe that number is a shockingly consistent 96 percent. In public and on the record, Republicans in Washington are, with rare exceptions, an official part of this majority. For lawmakers, to do anything but prove loyalty at all costs is to run the risk of being heckled out of office, another casualty of a presidential cyberbullying purity crusade. And for officials whose identities are defined by the principals they serve — like this Republican — the choice can look like abiding almost anything to maintain proximity to power (“Everyone loves power,” as he put it) or defecting to the Never Trump wilderness. (“Those people are delusional grifters,” he said. “Trump is going to lose, and the Democrats are going to look at those assholes and say, ‘Get the fuck out of here, you Bush-loving warmongers.’ ”)

But that logic suggests an almost total indifference to policy and ideology, and the Republican insists that he isn’t indifferent, not entirely. He thinks Trump is “lazy,” “an awful person,” and “an idiot,” among other things. But he’s also against tax hikes and the Green New Deal. He believes in small government, in Washington staying out of the way. In fact, before the coronavirus pandemic, he thought the government’s managing to survive a failed executive was “almost a vindication of Republican principles” because most people, in his view, found they could get along just fine without a functioning federal government. Now, of course, “even small-government conservatives would say there’s a pretty big role for the federal government in our society,” he acknowledged.

“You’re not either a MAGA person or a Democrat,” he said. “There are some Republicans who think you should stick around and prevent the worst stuff from happening because he is the president, however odious that is, and it’s not gonna change until he’s voted out of office. If you just completely leave the field, you’re abdicating responsibility.” But he doesn’t actually believe that’s true. Not totally, anyway. “It’s definitely self-serving,” he said. “I mean, once you grow up, life is all about contradictions.” So he chose to become one. He exists now in a zombielike state somewhere between commitment and defection, his outward-facing self spiritually dead but his new identity not yet fully born. Or, put another way, he lives what you could call a lie.

“I remember thinking Reince Priebus is like Marshal Pétain, and the RNC is like Vichy France,” he said of the 2016 campaign. When Election Night finally came, he went to a party with other members of the conservative Establishment who agreed with the assessment. Nobody wanted Trump to win. (“Fuck, no,” he said, when I asked if he had voted for Trump, though he wouldn’t disclose whom he did vote for.) Everyone had made peace with the idea of four years of Clinton. When the results came in, “it was like a funeral,” he said. But for whom? Unlike when Trump won the nomination, this Republican didn’t consider quitting his job or leaving his party when Trump won the presidency. “What else am I gonna do,” he said, “go sell printer paper?” The alternatives were probably just as bleak during the primary, but back then, the power calculus wasn’t as clear. If Trump had lost the election, would those who had quit the party be praised for their foresight or shunned as deserters? Now, the power was there for the taking.

Most days, in the crack of separation between his own aims and the aims of the president, the Republican can find a way to live with himself. Most days, feeling no connection to the White House, he can do his job and achieve a state of blissful denial, thinking little about whom his actions are really in service of. “Most days, he doesn’t factor into it,” he said, explaining the cognitive dissonance. “Trump’s pretty disengaged day to day. He has subcontracted most of what his administration actually does to actual Republicans who work on traditional Republican issues. That’s the story of his presidency. This is fundamentally a pretty lazy guy who likes to watch a lot of TV, likes to call up his buddies on the phone and bitch about why the government isn’t really working for him.”

But other days, during periods of crises or threat or — less common — unified effort, the interests of this White House and every Republican outside it fuse together. “It’s not sustainable in times like that,” he said, which “feels really bad” on a personal level. “There are times when we are all working directly, and those times felt bad.” Though, if he’s being honest, not entirely bad. “They can also be kind of fun,” he said, adding that standing against a common enemy — in those cases, Nancy Pelosi, congressional Democrats, and the entirety of the #Resistance — is the whole game for people like him. “I still enjoyed that,” he said, “That’s the bread and butter of what Republicans do.”

He knows that other anonymous Republicans walk among him. But “it’s been a long four years” since that Election Night funeral, he said, and every mourner had to make his or her own choice. “A certain segment went and got jobs in the administration. A certain segment wanted to keep suckling off the teat of the RNC and all that,” he said. He doesn’t talk much about Trump’s faults with those people anymore. “If you don’t like Trump, but you like money, and you’re willing to be vocal about how we need to reelect him, there’s a lot of money to be made this year.” Politics is a business, just like anything else, and the more sacrifices you’re willing to make, the better business is. Besides, he said, “it’s hard to go up against the president of your own party — even if he’s not really a Republican.”

As election day nears, with a pandemic raging and a vacant Supreme Court seat in the balance, these stories are bound to become more frequent, if that’s even possible, and the reaction to the stories is bound to grow more exasperated. (If the president is a stupid sociopath endangering the lives of everyone around him, why would anyone fear crossing him more than they fear what he could do to the country given another four years in office? And so on.) This particular anonymous Republican has been a source in many of the stories, and he’ll probably be a source in many more. So he has fashioned an intellectual argument that he even sort of believes for why they’re a public service.

“If they have any value, and that’s highly questionable, it’s that the unprecedented frequencies with which anonymous Republicans harshly criticize Trump and this White House continually remind the public what an aberration Trump is,” he said. “Trump is a first-term president with consistently high approval ratings among Republicans, and the fact that he has engendered so little loyalty among D.C. Republicans should remind the public that this current era is not normal. That’s definitely the overarching rationale.” But it’s not as though there is a long-term strategy to undermine the president. Not with this Republican, anyway. More often, the quotes he gives are formed as a gut reaction to “the White House’s incompetence,” which “offends me,” he said.

But if you can avoid the inconvenient facts of the mass deaths and the economic collapse brought on by the virus, he believes Trump’s presidency is proof of the Founders’ genius. “His laziness is a good thing for the country,” he said, “because he wants to do things, but he doesn’t have the work ethic to actually see them to fruition.” The few examples of the president getting anything done, he said, involved people besides Trump doing everything themselves with his blessing, as with immigration. “That’s been the one thing where they’ve actually harnessed the government to implement their will. If Trump cared about all this other stuff, too, it’d be a lot worse.”

So where does all of this leave him on November 3? As the date creeps closer, the likelihood that Trump will lose and take down the Republican Party with him seems greater and greater. That’s a scary thought for this Republican to consider. “It’s going to be so bad. The party will be finished,” he said. “But maybe we deserve it?” And it seems as if the smell of death at the front of the herd has triggered in some survival instincts for the long winter ahead. There will be life after Trump, and those who endured his cannibalistic reign have more immediate worries than what people 100 years in the future will think of them. “If he loses in November, all the rats are gonna say that they were only working for him to save him from himself, which is bullshit. Everyone loves power. Everyone likes to feel important,” the Republican said. To observe the early signs of the partywide effort to distance from Trump has been satisfying. “It vindicates how I’m operating,” he said. “I want to have my cake and eat it too. And that’s how they feel.”

But eating cake for four years takes its toll. There has to be some meaning in all of this, doesn’t there? Maybe he could come up with a quote to distill the moment. “You know how people say a scar or flaw makes something more beautiful or gives it more character? What if Trump is that for America?” No. He retracted the statement. Even anonymously, he didn’t want to bullshit. Come to think of it, it was the only time he didn’t have to. Reading those words over, he said, “I actually gagged.”

*This article appears in the October 26, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!