Head slumped on his chest, General John Kelly looked visibly uncomfortable as he listened to President Donald Trump defend “fine people on both sides” of the white supremacist, neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville two months ago. Social media erupted, with many wondering how long Kelly could serve the administration before resigning. #Getoutwhileyoustillcan started trending.
While Kelly disagrees with Trump on many fronts, he is also seen as one of the few people capable of bringing order to a chaotic White House. Yet, as Trump’s antics persist, Kelly faces a predicament: on one hand, his resignation would likely absolve him from further objections to Trump’s policies, and send a strong message of resistance to the administration; on the other, by staying on board, Kelly can at least steer Trump towards safer, more sensible actions.
This dilemma has stood at the heart of the civil disobedience debate throughout American history. Today, it is especially pervasive for members of the Trump White House who object to his divisive, intolerant stances.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, a former president of the Boy Scouts, had to be talked out of resignation by Vice President Mike Pence following Trump’s controversial speech at the annual Boy Scout Jamboree. Chief Economic Advisor Gary Cohn, who is Jewish, apparently drafted a letter of resignation after Trump’s response to the Charlottesville march. Both stayed on. Meanwhile, both former Attorney General Sally Yates and former FBI Director James Comey refused to give Trump their loyalty. Both were fired.
While administration officials often receive the most media attention, dissenting citizens also face the same dilemma: is it more impactful to protest within or beyond the boundaries of the law? Massive, peaceful protests outside the Capitol have received significant attention, but proven short-lived in their impact. Conversely, acts of civil disobedience proved effective in opposing Republicans’ recent pushes to repeal Obamacare.
Despite the strong short-term impact of resignation, in order to make a sustained, positive impact on the Trump administration, officials must obey and work to influence Trump from within. But for dissenters outside of the administration, civil disobedience is the weapon of choice.
Disobedience From Within
When Yates openly refused to defend Trump’s travel ban, she defended the Justice Department’s “solemn obligation to always seek justice and stand for what is right.” Before she was fired, not many knew her. But afterwards, she immediately became an idol to the Trump opposition. Hundreds of people sent letters thanking her. The Women’s March tweeted, “We stand with Sally Yates, a true American hero. #ThankYouSally #RESIST.” Soon, Twitter was abuzz with those hashtags.
But while Yates’ decision to disobey drew significant attention, its impact was short-lived. She was immediately fired and replaced by Dana Boente, who said he would enforce the ban. The public outrage fizzled out within a couple of weeks, and Trump went ahead with his policy.
On the flip side, by standing with the administration, national security officials like Kelly and Defense Secretary James Mattis have helped tame the president while calming public fears about the administration’s dangerously aggressive foreign policy. A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted in September found that only 37 percent of Americans trust Trump to handle the strained situation with North Korea. Meanwhile, 72 percent trust U.S. military leaders, of which 43 percent said they trust them “a great deal.” The presence of senior military advisors like Mattis and Kelly calms the public’s worries over Trump’s often unpredictable foreign policy.
The public’s trust in these officials has a strong basis: Trump’s national security team has been effective in countering Trump’s dangerously aggressive foreign policy approach. Throughout Trump’s jousting with Kim Jong Un, for example, Mattis and other national security officials have emphasized a diplomatic approach.
Tillerson and Mattis offer the best demonstrations of the positive influence that senior administration officials can wield on Trump. Despite the president tweeting that he should “save his energy” in negotiations with North Korea, Tillerson defied Trump by discussing the issue with Chinese President Xi Ping in Beijing and opening direct lines of communication with Kim Jong Un. Tillerson has also spearheaded efforts to shift the focus of legislation on Iran away from the nuclear issue.
Mattis contradicted Trump’s comments about abandoning diplomacy with North Korea, stating, “We’re never out of diplomatic solutions. We’re always looking for more.” He even directly opposed Trump’s position on the Iran nuclear agreement, saying that remaining in the deal is in America’s national interest. His willingness to contradict Trump brings hope to many. His visit in October to the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas and pursuit of diplomatic efforts with Pyongyang shows the peaceful influence his position as Secretary of State allows him to exert.
Senior administration officials have also restored order within the White House, though to a more limited extent. When Kelly stepped in as chief of staff, he immediately began to clean up Trump’s messes by firing divisive White House officials Anthony Scaramucci and Sebastian Gorka. Kelly also restricted the air-time of the increasingly unpopular Kellyanne Conway.
Lower-ranking administration officials have also influenced Trump by working silently as opposition officers. Trump’s White House has been more prone to leaks than his predecessors’. The leaked transcripts of Trump’s phone calls with Mexican President Peña Nieto and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull were ridiculed for days.
The internal fights within the administration between Jared Kushner, Steve Bannon, Reince Priebus, and Trump brought many to speculate that these high-ranking members themselves were leaking information to secure support for their sides. These leaks have drawn public attention to Trump’s more erratic behavior behind closed doors, and have allowed dissenting administration officials to hold Trump accountable from within the White House.
In checking the administration from within, dissenters demonstrate what Mark Strand, the president of the Congressional Institute, calls the “guardrail theory.” Strand told the HPR that by acting as a “guardrail” to curb Trump’s more erratic decisions, officials “prevent the White House from tipping over.”
Disobedience in the Streets
But while obedient members from within the administration can directly influence Trump, civil disobedience on a wide scale can often have a more lasting impact. Today, the long legacy of civil disobedience in America lives on through sit-ins outside government buildings and marches which have often ended in violent outbursts by crowds and clashes with the police.
Most recently, civil disobedience became a central question during the debate over the GOP effort to repeal and replace Obamacare. In September, advocacy groups and resistance leaders staged nationwide sit-ins and organized mass acts of civil disobedience in opposition to the Graham-Cassidy bill.
The senate hearing on Graham-Cassidy was disrupted by a massive group of disabled protesters. They shouted from their wheelchairs, interrupting the proceedings and ultimately forcing the capitol police to remove them by force. Videos and pictures of this incident went viral on social media and thousands of posts supporting the protesters poured in the days following the incident.
The overwhelming public support for this one act of civil disobedience highlights just how effective it can be. It even inspired others to take up the burden themselves. Hundreds demonstrated outside the offices of Mitch McConnell, Marco Rubio and Shelley Capito. Six demonstrators had to be removed after breaking into Capito’s office.
These aggressive demonstrations sometimes draw ire from those who favor more “civil” measures of protest. Former Utah Congressman Jason Chaffetz told the HPR, “when [disobedience] deteriorates into attacks on individuals and threatening lives, that’s a bridge too far. And unfortunately, the violence has been happening more and more often.” Furthermore, some argue that the more aggressive forms also harm the cause by drawing negative press.
Nevertheless, the raucous mobilization at the grassroots level proved effective. Sen. Tim Scott (R – S.C.) dismissed the movement as childish, but recognized its impact: “it’s unfortunately inconsistent with reality, but it does motivate people, including in [Congress].”Loud protesters prevented Republican leaders from speaking at town halls, and threats of violence prompted many, like Senator Jeff Flake (R – AZ) to cancel their meetings. With the GOP controlling both Congress and the presidency, disobedience was the most effective way to make citizens’ voices heard.
The Future of Dissent
According to Harvard Kennedy School senior lecturer Marshall Ganz, dissenters must organize on a national scale in order to continue making a considerable impact on the administration.
Ganz was active in the civil rights and farmworker-union movements in the 1960s and 1970s, and helped structure the 2008 movement behind Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. “The priority needs to be how [protestors] unify themselves and reach as deeply as they can into their constituency,” Ganz told the HPR. “There is a big difference between a movement of 1000 activists and 800,000 citizens.”
Furthermore, Ganz emphasized the importance of grassroots organization for building this national coalition of dissent: “they must organize their movement by scaffolding local organizations as part of a national movement.” Successful mobilization efforts must be undertaken at the lowest levels to engage ordinary citizens. If people could be engaged at the grassroots level but with one overarching message to unify them, the power of a mobilized citizenry in this bottom-up approach would force elected officials to listen.
The image of Kelly with his hands in his head reflects the strange position many Americans find themselves in today. The influence wielded by some in the White House suggests that they should work within the system to make an impact. But for people outside of the administration, disobedience remains the strongest way to influence lawmakers on the hill.
Ultimately, the size and conviction of the opposition movement will determine the effectiveness of civil disobedience throughout the rest of Trump’s term. Whether it’s disabled people protesting against legislation or officials within the White House acting as a guardrail against erratic policymaking, successful disobedience will require the persistent efforts of all dissenters, both inside and outside of the administration.
Image Credit: Office of the President of the United States/Wikimedia Commons