Doing One's Job Is Not A Low Bar In Times Of Crisis

by Michael C. Dorf

As Thanksgiving approaches, I want to express sincere gratitude to Republican public office holders who carried out their legal duties despite enormous pressure to participate or acquiesce in Donald Trump's scheme to end American constitutional democracy. The list is long and includes a great many people whose names are not widely known (a fact for which they are no doubt grateful). Most prominent among those whose names we do know are: Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger; Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt; Michigan Vice-Chair of the Board of State Canvassers Aaron Van Langevelde; the four Republicans on the five-member Maricopa Board of Supervisors; Federal District Judge Matthew Brann; and US Senators Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Mitt Romney, and Ben Sasse. Thank you to all of them and to everyone else who put duty first.

In recent days I have seen it said that one should not be praised simply for doing one's job--that this is too low a bar. I strongly disagree. When a mob led by the US President threatens your livelihood, your life, your home, and your family, it takes enormous courage to do one's job with honesty and integrity. We rightly deem soldiers who do not flee in the face of the enemy brave, even though desertion under fire would be unlawful. Likewise here.

The Thanksgiving seitan piccata, mashed potatoes, and withered kale aren't going to make themselves (even if I'm cooking for only four rather than the usual twenty this year), so I'll keep it fairly brief today, but I want  to add a few personal notes.

Donald Trump and his collaborators have done a great many terrible things while in power. On race, immigration, public health, the environment, and so much more, the Trump administration's policies have been simply horrible. We will have to reckon with the damage for years to come. Today I want to focus on a trans-substantive dimension to Trump's awfulness: his attack on public servants--those whom he and his followers call agents of the Deep State.

I take the attack on the Deep State personally. My grandfather, Irving Dorf, was born at the start of the twentieth century, very shortly after his virtually penniless parents immigrated to the US from Eastern Europe. Grandpa was a diligent student but to help support his family he started working right out of high school. He worked for his entire career in the US Post Office, eventually rising to a position in which he supervised hundreds of his fellow civil servants. Grandpa was a Republican until Watergate, which disgusted him. Of course his political affiliation never affected how he did his job.

My parents, Stanley and Annette Dorf, were both born during the Great Depression. They were also civil servants. My mom worked as a history teacher for many years in the New York City public schools. She took her work home with her, often grading papers and calling students' parents long after her official work day was over. 

My father, who died just a few months ago, spent nearly his entire working life in the New York State Department of Insurance. For much of that time he was the Chief Casualty Actuary and then head of the Bureau of Policy and Planning. Although a registered Democrat, dad always separated his personal political views from his professional judgment. He served with distinction under both Democratic and Republican administrations. Among the prized possessions my sister and I inherited from him are several framed ceremonial pens used by Republican NY Governor (and later US Vice President) Nelson Rockefeller to sign legislation on which my father provided crucial assistance.

For the last quarter century, I have been a professor at private universities, but early in my career I was a government employee, for two years as a law clerk in the US courts and then for three years as a professor at a state university. I also inherited my family's' view that service in government is a noble calling.

As President-elect Biden restocks the federal government with competent dedicated professionals at the top, it is worth remembering that even as many principled civil servants left or were forced out of the government during Trump's reign of terror, a great many remained in their government jobs and performed above and beyond the call of duty. The Deep State is not some shadowy monster. My grandfather and parents were the Deep State. Our neighbors who deliver the mail, put out fires, teach our children, and count our ballots are the Deep State. In this dreadful year, I give thanks to the Deep State.