Do they have no shame? On 15 August, Donald Trump stood in the lobby of his eponymous tower in New York and heaped praise on racists, bigots and fascists. There were, Trump averred, “very fine people” among the group of neo-Nazi marchers who had spent the previous Friday in Charlottesville, Virginia, chanting “Jews will not replace us.”
The president’s remarks should have come as no surprise to anyone with even a passing familiarity with his life story. Trump has a long and well-documented history of racism, nativism and xenophobia: from refusing to rent his father’s apartments to black families in Queens, New York; to reportedly keeping a book of Hitler’s speeches in his bedside cabinet; to repeatedly questioning the citizenship of the first black president of the United States.
Yet what of his colleagues, who stood silently by as their boss went off the rails. What happened to their moral core? To their intolerance of bigotry or, more accurately, Nazi apologists? Lest we forget, at his Trump Tower press conference the president was flanked by three senior members of his administration: his chief economic adviser Gary Cohn, Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin and transportation secretary Elaine Chao.
Mnuchin and Cohn are Jewish; Chao is an immigrant from Taiwan. Why did all three of them not tender their resignations that very evening? How can they justify staying on as employees of a president who gives aid and comfort to white nationalists and Hitler wannabes? Is it basic ethics that they lack? Or a backbone? Or both?
Consider some of the rather self-serving headlines that have appeared in the press since the president’s press conference: “Trump aides agonize over their futures in a reeling White House” (Bloomberg); “WH aides squirm at Trump’s words” (Politico); “Trump’s crisis spurs talk of White House departures” (Reuters).
Yet despite all this “talk” of “departures”, there haven’t actually been any. To be clear: the entire membership of the president’s committee on the arts and the humanities stood down en masse; a string of chief executives left the president’s business advisory council, forcing Trump to disband it; even a prominent member of the ultra-loyal evangelical advisory board quit over Trump’s remarks in New York. Not a single member of the Trump White House or Trump cabinet, however, has resigned.
Cohn briefed reporters that he was “disgusted” and “upset” with the president, but he didn’t quit. More than 300 of Mnuchin’s former Yale University peers published an open letter urging him “as our friend, our classmate” to resign “in protest of President Trump’s support of Nazism and white supremacy”.
Mnuchin’s response? To issue a statement defending the president, claiming Trump “in no way, shape or form” equates neo-Nazis with peaceful protesters. (He does.)
This is moral cowardice, plain and simple. You would expect the nationalists, aka Crazies, in the White House – the likes of Stephen Miller, Sebastian Gorka and, up until his sacking on 18 August, Steve Bannon – to be loud and loyal defenders of Trump’s belligerent bigotry. You would also expect White House advisers Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump (or “Javanka” as Bannon is said to have dismissively dubbed them) to stick with the president, no matter how much they may disagree with his rhetoric in private. They’re family, after all.
Yet what of the globalists, aka the Grown-Ups, around Trump? The finance guys such as Mnuchin, Cohn and former ExxonMobil boss Rex Tillerson at the state department? And the generals – national security adviser HR McMaster, defence secretary James Mattis and the new White House chief of staff John Kelly? What’s their excuse for staying on?
With the departure of Bannon, and rumours that Gorka is not long for the White House either, the Crazies may be losing influence over the president. But what does it matter if the Grown-Ups left behind are either unable or unwilling to blunt Trump’s worst instincts? The truth is it is near impossible to restrain or moderate him.
Where were Mattis or McMaster when Trump was tweeting that he would bar transgender people from serving openly in the military? Where was Kelly when the president approvingly tweeted a (fake) story about a US general who committed war crimes against Muslim prisoners? “Like all people who work for the president,” noted the Washington Post, “[Kelly] has since experienced the limits of the president’s promises to co-operate in order to ensure the success of the enterprise.”
Who would have guessed that the leaders of corporate America would have a better sense of morality, and a stronger conscience, than a trio of generals who claim to value honour, integrity and codes of conduct? That the boss of Walmart would be more disturbed by the president’s praise-filled remarks for modern-day Brownshirts than the two Jewish advisers who were standing right next to him as he spoke?
This terrible silence from the Grown-Ups in the Trump administration can only be described as acquiescence in Trump’s awfulness; their ongoing presence in the White House, at the Pentagon or the state department is complicity in Trump’s high crimes and misdemeanours.
The longer they stay at Trump’s side, however, the quicker their reputations will turn to mud. History will judge these alleged Grown-Ups as cowards, maybe as opportunists too; above all else, as enablers of a president who openly incited Islamophobia and transphobia and failed to denounce unequivocally anti-Semitism and neo-Nazis.
This article appears in the 21 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia