Keepers of the Oath: Honor Confronts Trumpery

DISCLAIMER: This essay does not refer to “The Oath Keepers,” the extremist “anti-government American far-right organization associated with the white supremacy and militia movements.” Those who keep their oath to defend the U.S. Constitution by becoming whistleblowers in the era of Trumpery are the heroes referenced here.

Most Americans have complained about the “faceless bureaucrats“ who make up the federal workforce. At the same time, many have grown increasingly cynical about commitments of any kind, including the idea of an oath of allegiance.

Extreme American individualism implies that we have no obligations to anyone but ourselves. The “invisible hand” will somehow take care of the social good. We imagine that federal workers are all just like that IRS agent who seemed so rigid in rejecting our claim that s/he should treat that questionable expense as a legitimate deduction. We pursue our life, liberty, and happiness in illusory isolation, demanding in the same breath that taxes be lowered and that the potholes be fixed.

Most of us never meet the many career professionals who work for the security of the nation in the Department of State, Defense, and several intelligence services. Whatever you, or they, think of national policies or covert practices at a particular time, they take an oath to defend the constitution and the nation. Yes, it can all get quite confusing, especially in an era of endless wars of choice where the national interest is not entirely clear.

Trumpery Destabilizes a Complex System

The current chaos in the executive branch resulting from presidential self-dealing and a paranoid style has turned patriotism on its head. Under these conditions, it is not easy to act as directed and at the same time honor one’s oath of office. Any failure of a civil servant to put the personal political interests of this president above the national interest ostracized, transferred, or “investigated” and vilified on social media.

Foreign Service professionals cannot perform the delicate arts of diplomacy when the president’s impulsive behavior conflicts with established national policies, law, and the Constitution.

The sudden resignation of Kurt Volcker and the removal of career ambassador Marie Yovanovitch reflect the deep corruption that saturates the White House.

As a Reuters story reported on Oct. 1, 2019:

Kurt Volker, who resigned last week as Trump’s special representative for Ukraine, was to go to Capitol Hill to give a deposition to House staff on Thursday, the day he had been asked to appear.

Marie Yovanovitch, who was U.S. ambassador to Ukraine until she was abruptly recalled in May, has agreed to appear on Oct. 11, not on Wednesday as originally requested.

With their deep knowledge of Ukraine, testimony by Yovanovitch and Volker could be especially important to the impeachment probe formally launched by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last week.

It looks to me as though these professionals are ready to tell what they know. Yovanovitch will testify this week. Volker has already turned over many documents to Congressional investigators. The same lawyers represent a second White House whistleblower, another intelligence official, as represent the first.

As I watched events unfold over the last couple of years amid growing evidence of erratic executive decisions and operational chaos, along with speculation about impeachment, I thought of the “Seneca Cliff.” In all sorts of complex systems, both physical and human, “progress is slow but ruin is rapid.” The pattern fits the breakdown of mechanical systems, ecosystems, and societies alike. Graphically, it looks like this:


Growth is slow; ruin is rapid. Source:


Complex adaptive systems are able to maintain stability because various negative feedback loops moderate any self-amplifying tendency for some subsystems to spin out of control. However, such moderating factors do not always work, or they might not even be present, which usually signals the impending collapse of the system. By applying these principles, we can better understand what happens when political systems begin to spin out of control, then sometimes re-stabilize and other times collapse leading to chaos followed by some new often ruthless regime. Our question is whether the corrupt Trumpist subsystem or the larger system of constitutional democracy will collapse.

Where are the Negative Feedback Loops?

In the present case, we can see that the American political system, ordinarily framed by the principles of the Constitution and assured of some level of stability by officials who take their oaths seriously and enact the operational principles of the system, has begun to spin out of control. The president-who-would-be-king violates constitutional principles, laws, and regulations daily, while routinely lying about everything.

Where are the “checks and balances” that would ordinarily maintain stability? They are there, but Trump routinely ignores or defies them, especially the one called “congressional oversight.” We are not used to an executive that cavalierly refuses to accept constitutionally established institutional relations.

Honor Rises

This is where the Oath Takers come into play. The anonymous White House Whistle-blowers are honoring the oath they took to uphold and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. An old military principle is that one should not obey an illegal order, although that rarely happens. When a dictatorial regime runs roughshod over the Constitution and the institutional balance in government by his blatant self-dealing and defying the separation of powers, only those willing to risk retribution and even death by honoring their oath can bring the system back into balance again by informing congressional oversight committees of the wrong-doing they observe. Inspectors General with exceptional access to information have also come forward.

The U.S. political system may right itself yet, once all the information becomes public, forcing senate minions of the aspiring tyrant to knuckle under to public pressure. The road ahead will be rough, but our system may yet stabilize leaving us the opportunity to address the real-world existential emergencies that confront us. When that happens, it will be largely due to the Oath Keepers about whom we might otherwise have known nothing.

Institutions are as Good as the People Running Them

Most of us most of the time envision public institutions as fixed objects, occupied by people who manage and perform their functions for the benefit of the people. When those who the people have entrusted with the authority to lead institutions to achieve their mission, believe in the institutions they oversee, such assumptions pretty much hold true.

However, most institutions function effectively mostly because of the commitment of their directors to honestly implement their mandated operations.

Authoritarian Demagoguery and Corruption of the “Rule of Law”

The so-called “rule of law” exists only to the extent that people believe in the value of institutions operating as prescribed in law. Legislation specifies the mandate and basic operational principles by which an institution is supposed to conduct its business. The institution promulgates rules and regulations as the operational means of carrying out the mandate.

In “normal times,” all this works out, at least in terms of maintaining the legitimacy of the institutions and its actions, more or less effectively, whether we happen to like a particular policy or not.

However, the actions of authoritarians demonstrate the fragile nature of democratic institutions. If the chief executive, i.e., POTUS in the case of the U.S.A., has no commitment to democratic values or the rule of law and happens to be a narcissistic sociopath then the “rule of law” tends to break down.

When the highest executive authority in the land routinely lies and violates the law and ethics, and roles back institutional regulations to further his power-seeking agenda above all else, then all sorts of things we have taken for granted tend to crumble before our eyes. That is what corruption looks like.

The authoritarian demagogue speaks with a forked tongue; his speech has little to do with his actions, intentionally fomenting as much ambiguity as possible. The goal of wannabe dictators is to upset normal expectations, leaving others unable to operate in normal ways. The “new normal” is the abnormality of a personality disorder.

Chaos, Democracy, and Enforcement of Law

When the culture suffers from a weakening of democratic values and deep-seated resentment of the failure of the government to represent the interests of the people, authoritarians can take illegitimate control by manipulating public opinion. They repeat big lies claiming all manner of accomplishments that do not exist. The tyrant defines a free press as “the enemy of the people.” Under such circumstances, corruption has a free reign.

A wealth of self-indulgence clutters the culture, amplified by social media. Core values are clouded in a haze of greed and fear turned skillfully into hatred, distracting people from the corruption of high office. Democratic values take a back seat and, as in our case, the mass (corporate) media promote implications that the “authority” of the would-be autocrat in the highest office, is absolute and exempt from legal or moral constraint. Mandated to execute the laws of the land, he is somehow “above the law” and shielded from prosecution for violating the law. Too many believe he is excused from scrutiny by the one body – Congress – authorized by the Constitution to execute “oversight” over the executive.

Who enforces the law when the highest authority appoints an attorney general to protect his personal power, not the rule of law, thereby avoiding any kind of accountability for violating the law? The danger to the survival of democratic institutions is very real and growing daily.