Special to the USA Today Network
I grew up in Westchester County and went to college in Poughkeepsie. I left New York in the 1990s, and have lived in the Washington, D.C. area since then. I am writing to my hometown newspaper (the Reporter Dispatch, which I delivered, is long gone) to send word back from the Capital.
I am scared. I think you should be scared.
I have spent my professional career in and around government. While I am a Democrat by party, I am probably best described as a practical liberal. l lean left on social issues, to the center on fiscal issues and a bit to the right on foreign affairs and security (where I have spent most of my time). I am proud of having been a tough prosecutor as a young man, but I support the ACLU strongly. I am equally proud to have worked for the Central Intelligence Agency, during both the Clinton and Bush administrations.
That said, I also am aware of the dangers of the tools of security, particularly intelligence and law enforcement. I have worked on the Hill for Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, but cherish having had the opportunity to do that work alongside Republicans as well Democrats. I consider myself a patriot. I am not unusual.
In short, I have spent most of my life as what our current president calls the “Deep State,” and what I prefer to think of as the “Steady State.”
During my career I have strongly disagreed with many of the policies of the various presidential administrations, but worked within the constitutional structure as appropriate. And I was not alone — my colleagues were invariably patriotic and law-abiding, hard-working and effective. And those colleagues included people from all across the political spectrum. This experience runs from my time as an Assistant District Attorney, through my work as an Intelligence Office and on to my work on Capitol Hill. In short, there was no “Deep State,” and there is no “Deep State” — just a Steady State.
With that background, I have never really feared for the safety or stability of my country. Sure, there were problems we addressed, threats we faced (or at least tried to understand), and issues to fight over. I was certainly on the losing side of some bruising policy disputes. But I never really worried. I never was afraid. Real threats, existential threats, were historic, not really part of my life.
I am worried now.
President Donald Trump, and many of his followers, are endangering our institutions of government, the norms of democrac, and the rule of law. I don’t like his policies (to the extent I can understand what they are), but I don’t fear his policies — democracy is about fighting — and sometimes losing — policy conflicts.
What I fear is Trump’s contempt for democracy itself.
Trump has a flagrant disregard for the norms of behavior (small and large) that lets democracy work. He also seems to harbor hostility to the basic concepts of the rule of law. In short, I fear that Trump may break, not bend, the system, and such a break may be permanent and mortal. Because of what this president is doing, the chances of my children living in a functioning democracy are diminishing — their lives may be increasingly governed by autocracy and intolerance.
I am also fearful, again for the first time, about what Trump has done in the sphere of foreign relations. I grew up in a post-World War II world, where the basic thrust of all of our foreign policy was to bring stability to the world and restrain Communism in its authoritarian, anti-democratic, guise. Again, I have disagreed with the tactics used in various administrations, which I sometimes I believed were feckless, foolish or flat-out wrong, but never doubted that the policymakers and Presidents, of both parties, were committed to a strategic goal of peaceful coexistence. They were patriots like me, and believed in our system of government. There is plenty of room to argue about whether our tactics were wrong, maybe even immoral (or amoral), but where we cozied up to dictators, it was because we thought it was useful to us, not that we had affection for dictators; when we went to war it was in belief (perhaps mistaken) that war was necessary to achieve peace, but never because we liked war, or favored death.
Now, Trump’s foreign policy (if it merits that name) is destroying all that work. The president appears to support authoritarians from choice, not national self-interest. He is systematically destroying a structure of defense and alliances which, although flawed, have maintained peace and stability for years. His may be called foreign “policy,” but it is not really a policy — at least not one to further American interests. It is incoherent, ad hoc, amoral and often random — the only theme of this “policy” is self-interest and a love of power. Because of what this president is doing, the chances of my children dying in uniform is rising. They will likely live in a world of warfare and strife, where their country is despised and rejected as the leader of the free world.
Finally, the president has rejected the very idea of fact- and information-driven decision making. Whether in domestic policy, or foreign policy, or climate change, the president has rejected the CIA, academia, science and most sources of fact-based information. This medieval approach, where faith, prejudice, naked self-interest, venality or “gut” drives policy is dangerous. Facts do not matter. Truth does not matter.
Our president has abandoned a core belief that rational thought and careful use of evidence leads to good decisions. Immigration, climate change, environmental policy, police and justice policy, to name but a few, have been untethered from a world view based on reality and logic, not whim and whimsey. Much is said about this country and its founders, but all of them were, if nothing else, were children of the enlightenment and believers in rationality and fact. Because of this approach, my children are likely to live in a world of chaos, poverty, unrest and catastrophic natural events.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a son of our beloved Hudson Valley, once said that “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
But those words do not fit our current situation.
We have much to fear.
The better guidance comes from Roosevelt’s wife, Eleanor:
“You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face.”
My hope is that we can look this fear in the face, gaining strength, courage and confidence — and act.
Steven Cash previously served as Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s designee on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and later as her Chief Counsel on the Judiciary Committee. He also served as both an Assistant General Counsel and Operations Officer with the Central Intelligence Agency. He previously served as a prosecutor in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. He is now in private practice handling national security and white-collar matters. He grew up in Hartsdale, New York, and attended Vassar College in Poughkeepsie.