In the 1986 remake of “The Fly,” Jeff Goldblum plays Seth Brundle, a scientist who changes into a mutant man-fly after his DNA is contaminated in a failed experiment.
As he descends into the madness of his fading humanity, Brundle announces, haltingly through his catastrophe of a fly-mouth, that his failure will be redeemed. He will be the first “insect politician.” Redemption never comes, and the only genuinely human decision Brundle makes from thereon is to kill himself.
The United States Civil Service, sometimes called the “administrative state” or “deep state,” is supposed to be professional. It ought to be apolitical, like an ant colony or beehive, serving a queen, the sovereign people, as they express themselves, under law, through their representatives in the elected offices.
Whether the designers of the modern progressive civil service intended it to be apolitical is an open question. Even if it were so designed, civil servants are not and cannot be ants or bees. They are people. Without robust mechanisms—prompt dismissals, firings, and swift and unfeelingly severe sanctions for misconduct—to enforce the political will of the sovereign people, they are bound to express a political will of their own. They will become insect politicians.
Political wisdom is not technical in nature. As he should, Trump gets his understanding of what ends to pursue from introspection, knowledge of himself, his experience, and his knowledge of the heroes, living and dead, of his imagination. This is evident in many of his speeches.
Aristotle taught that moral actions are determined by choices made based on such introspection. Habits illuminate the political ends, showing a person the right goal, the path to which reason shows the right means. The virtue of prudence, or what we might call good judgment today, is the right habits revealing the right ends and sound practical reason showing how those ends are achieved. That’s human excellence for Aristotle.
To their minds, they are all good people doing the right thing for their country. They feel that way because they all share the same morality. But virtue and morality are not the same thing.
The professional bureaucrats on display in the House Intelligence Committee’s hearing this past week illustrate this, albeit through a glass darkly. If you listen carefully, Marie Yovanovitch, George Kent, William Taylor, Alexander Vindman, Fiona Hill, and David Holmes each have ordered their conduct by looking inward. The habits of the bureaucrat and the technocrat light their way. They talk of their credentials and long service in the bureaucracy, without a hint of a suspicion that such experience might be a cause of myopia.
They all—I don’t include Ambassador Gordon Sondland, who is not a career bureaucrat but rather a donor—said quite honestly that a policy based on the consensus of experts should be the end of their actions. Actions that do not accord with that consensus anger them. At one point, Fiona Hill acknowledged this, recollecting a wrathful confrontation she had with Sondland:
“Who put you in charge of Ukraine?” And I’ll admit I was a bit rude. And that’s when he told me the president, which shut me up. And this other meeting, it was about 15, 20 minutes exactly as he depicted it was, I was actually, to be honest, angry with him.
The bureaucratic morality revolves around detecting the consensus and devising a consensus means to achieve it. By the lights of the diplomatic bureaucrats, any effort not originating with diplomatic bureaucrats has its origins in mischief. You might say if the society of bureaucrats were a country, it would treat foreigners with great suspicion.
There are many people in the professional civil service, such as those working in the now fatuously named 17 intelligence agencies (for the love of God, there were only 12 tribes of Israel!), who believe sincerely that actors like Lt. Colonel Vindman are the best kind of people. To their minds, they are all good people doing the right thing for their country.
They feel that way because they all share the same morality. Kent, Taylor, Vindman, Hill, and Holmes appear to bureaucrats to be exemplars of human excellence, and Trump appears entirely inadequate. The bureaucrats thus rebel—or should we say #Resist—against authority about the human good not rooted in their own carefully curated technical expertise.
Diminutive technocrats, inside and outside of government, seem unaware that their devotion to technical information undermines the ground of republican government. Rule by the people, of the people, for the people is rule not by experts, but—at the risk of repeating myself and Lincoln—by the people. Republican government is built on a pedestrian intelligence that is far superior to the alternative.
Virtue, or human excellence, and morality are not the same thing. The insect politicians are moral people, in the sense at least that Walter Sobchak of “The Big Lebowski” understands it: “Say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude. At least it’s an ethos.”
The insect politicians are not, of course, Nazis. But neither are they virtuous. They mistake for virtue the ethos, or habits, of the Excel spreadsheet, the PowerPoint slide-deck, the never-ending conference call, the consensus policy making, the jargon of bilateral and multilateral international relations and diffuse reciprocity, the pointless acronym, the proper channel, the General Schedule Pay Scale, the rank, the Ivy League credential, and the doctorate from SAIS.
This is the morality of the clerk, the bookkeeper, the middle manager, and the pencil pusher. It combines the modesty of the back office and the hubris of believing that without the bureaucrats, the enterprise could not, would not, exist.
Trump is the antidote to this. His flamboyant manner helps us, even the bureaucrats, because on many days Trump is the very best way to see the corruption in relief. The people and their posterity are the enterprise, and the insect politicians are the people’s instrument.