It is one of the supreme and perverse truths of history that dictators commit no crimes — they simply get others to commit them. In 1905, the Czar’s troops mowed down protesters in Red Square, and the Russian Revolution was basically postponed until 1917. It wasn’t until millions of soldiers experienced such carnage and deprivation on the front lines that the consequences for disobeying orders were less toxic than those for obeying them. Such moments of simultaneous mass realization are rare and impossible to engineer. Virtually no one predicted the uprising against Romania’s Ceausescu in 1989 that materialized in the course of a single demonstration. Would it were that we knew how to provoke one in North Korea.
Coups d’état, on the other hand, tend to be strictly military affairs. Usually, a General will have obtained the backing of an elite corps of officers, who in turn command enough soldiers to offset loyalists defending the regime. Popular resistance one way or another plays less of a role — but in Turkey last year, it was pivotal. On the other hand, Tiananmen Square illustrates how even massive numbers in revolt can still be crushed by brute force.
Ironically, those who wield the most actual power, in the sense of day-to-day carrying out of policies promulgated from the top, are almost never the engines of resistance. Perhaps it is the nature of bureaucracy; perhaps it is the reality that for most people, the prospect of losing a job and a paycheck is more than enough to keep them in line, regardless of their feelings about the morality or even legality of what they are being asked to do. Eichmann did not draw up the train schedules to Auschwitz alone, after all, but there are literally no examples of civilians working for the Deutsche Reichsbahn who did not cooperate fully in making sure the death transports ran excruciatingly on time.
Donald Trump is not a dictator — yet. But when he issued his clearly unconstitutional and blatantly immoral Executive Order (the “Muslim Ban”) last week, there was no shortage of officials from Customs and Immigration, the State Department, and the Department of Homeland Security willing to carry it out with distressing alacrity. The legal reversals for the administration have come fast and furious, but the lives of tens of thousands have been upended; disastrously so when it comes to refugees who are fleeing for their lives or those coming here for medical treatment. Tens of thousands of protesters blessedly flooded streets and airports, providing enormous psychological and logistical support, but there is still considerable confusion about whether visa-holders can still use the ones they had or must obtain new visas to enter the country.
What we didn’t see was resistance to the order from those responsible for carrying it out. If there were airport administrators, customs agents, employees of the TSA, or consular officials who refused to implement the policy at the outset, they certainly have kept a very low profile. To their credit (I suppose) they seem equally willing to reverse its enforcement, but in either case, their instinct seems to be to obey first and ask questions later. And some of them had real power to prevent the chaos that ensued last weekend. None of the employees who worked under them would have detained any arrivals, much less interrogate or handcuff them, had they not been directed to do so by their superiors.
There are tens of thousands of upper and middle management civil servants in every branch of government who are not appointed — they will mostly keep their jobs under the new administration. They are the ones who will be responsible for carrying out the onslaught of directives from the extremist new cabinet secretaries bent on crippling the missions of the very agencies that are heading. These “implementers” can collectively have an enormous impact on blunting these new policies.
Bureaucratic foot-dragging is admittedly the unsexiest of resistance work. It takes guts to pretend that you don’t know how to do your job nearly as well as you’ve been doing it all of these years. And when the Trumpmare is over, there will be no medals given out for pretending you didn’t get that email, for calling in sick to a regulation re-writing seminar, for being “unable to locate” the employee in your department that’s been leaking to the local newspaper.
If you’d rather resign or are forced to, then don’t do it quietly. Speak at a protest, preferably with a news camera present. If you’d just rather get another job out of government, then refuse to train your replacement. (Leave them a note that it’s nothing personal).
Use #CivilServiceDisobedience to spread the word of how those inside are resisting. And remember, you’re not alone. Millions and millions of us are horrified by Trump, and more of us than you think understand that you are the ones who did the highly unglamorous job of actually moving the country forward under Barack Obama. Don’t let anybody tell you what you have done hasn’t made a difference, even if, ironically, what you willing not to do now might end up making the most difference of all.