In American Resistance, David Rothkopf celebrates the heroic actions of government officials who prevented the Trump presidency from being even worse than it was.
Some of Trump’s most illegal and insane ideas, he shows, were subverted by political appointments and civil servants at many levels of the bureaucracy. Of course, we should be grateful to officials who upheld the rule of law. But it is ludicrous to portray the national security establishment – long the most entrenched and undemocratic wing of the American government – as any kind of democratic “resistance”.
Rothkopf aims to refute Trumpist attacks on the “deep state”: a supposedly secret network of high-placed government officials who maintain their grip on power regardless of popular will. He begins his book with a “word of thanks to the deep state”, a term he uses ironically both here and in his popular Deep State Radio podcast. Indeed, if there is a deep state in the US then Rothkopf is a card-carrying member, having served in the Clinton administration, worked for the consulting firm founded by Henry Kissinger, and edited Foreign Policy magazine.
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Rothkopf’s central story is “how an informal alliance of women and men working in agencies across the US government .. worked together to keep a dangerous, unhinged, ill-prepared president and his closest allies from doing irreparable damage to the United States”. Rothkopf recounts legitimate examples of heroism. For example, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman of the National Security Council was one of the whistleblowers who reported the 2019 phone call that led to Trump’s first impeachment (Trump had asked Ukrainian president Vladimir Zelensky to dig up dirt on Joe and Hunter Biden as a condition of the release of Congressionally appropriated aid to Ukraine that he was illegally withholding). This step came at a considerable cost to Vindman’s career as he was harried out of office early in 2020.
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Rothkopf provides numerous examples of how government officials defused Trump policies that were unlawful, impractical or simply crazy (for example, that a moat be dug at the border with Mexico and filled with alligators). They learned how to manage the president from below by delaying or modifying his actions while at the same time mollifying the infamously petulant Trump. They had to decide whether they could do more good by publicly resigning or by remaining in office to guard against Trump’s worst instincts.
By the end of his tenure, Trump sought to pack the bureaucracy with loyalists who would do whatever he ordered. It is frightening to contemplate what Trump might have done (or might yet do) with four more years in office. But Rothkopf exaggerates the importance of top officials as a bulwark against authoritarianism. It is far-fetched to think that but for a few more yes-men Trump could have pulled off a successful coup in January 2021 while he lacked popular support and the backing of economic elites and with even many members of his own party unwilling to follow him that far.
Though Rothkopf seeks to refute the deep state conspiracy, in some ways he actually demonstrates the power of the administrative state over elected officials. To be sure this is not a conspiracy, but Rothkopf nevertheless portrays a group of high-level bureaucrats capable of frustrating presidential aims. While such officials were only doing their duty when upholding the law, Rothkopf also recounts examples where Trump’s aims were neither illegal nor irrational, as when he sought to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan, a decision military officials worked to delay. Indeed, Rothkopf completely ignores the fact that Trump’s foreign policy was not simply the product of his authoritarianism and idiosyncratic whims but reflected a deep popular disgust with American military involvement abroad in the wake of the country’s catastrophic “forever wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq.
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Rothkopf does not subject so-called members of the deep state to any kind of critique, even reserving judgment on whether the motives of some of them in opposing Trump were less than pure. His real aim is to lionise government officials, especially those in the foreign policy and military establishment. With a few exceptions (for example, public health officials such as Anthony Fauci), most of the people Rothkopf examines belong to the national security state: the National Security Council, the military, the Department of Homeland Security. Whatever positive role these institutions might have played under Trump, they should hardly be looked to as protectors of democracy.
Since the early years of the Cold War, the American military-industrial complex has carried out a staggering military build-up: today the US spends nearly as much on weapons of war as every other nation combined. The national security establishment has frequently carried out its business out of sight from the democratic public. It is responsible for a series of disasters from Vietnam to Iraq. It has frequently intervened against democratic governments abroad. John Bolton, UN ambassador under George W. Bush and National Security Adviser under Trump, startlingly claimed that the 6 January insurrection was not a ‘coup d’etat’; he knew what a real coup was, he said, because he had helped plan them in other countries.
Rothkopf’s lack of consciousness of even recent history is staggering. He claims that but for the courageous officials of the deep state under Trump “alliances would have crumbled, enemies would have benefited, wars would have been fought, war crimes would have been committed”. That sounds like a great description of what did actually happen under George W Bush, with the backing of the national security establishment, including some of the figures praised in Rothkopf’s book.
American Resistance is a boring read and contains few new revelations about what happened during the Trump years. Its premise that by managing Trump the officials of the deep state were upholding democratic values is only partly true. For it is a common feature of any monarchy that ministers manipulate the king to make wiser decisions. We should be glad that some of Trump’s authoritarian policies were subverted. But we should still ask why any American president, as head of a largely unaccountable national security state, can rule as a king.