Free Press columnist Michael G. Roskin
Free Press columnist Michael G. Roskin
A biting novel from the early 1920s suggests how federal officials may be handling Trump’s rants and reversals. Czech author Jaroslav Hasek wrote “The Good Soldier Schweik” based on his absurd experiences in the Austro-Hungarian army in World War I.

Like Hasek, Josef Svejk (the Czech spelling) is drafted to serve an empire he dislikes in a war he opposes. Schweik acts dumb but is clever (dummschlau). He never disobeys but deliberately carries out to the letter stupid orders from incompetent officers that bollix up Austria’s shambolic war effort. Schweik is no hero; his sole aim is to return to his beer-buddies in their Prague pub “at 5 o’clock after the war.”

Translated into many languages, “Schweik” became a model for passive resistance to irrational, arbitrary authority: Give them what they foolishly demand. Yossarian in “Catch-22” is a Schweikian figure. Many Vietnam veterans can appreciate Schweik. They were unenthusiastic about dying in a senseless war that President Nixon was already phasing out.

Many Trump staffers took office with enthusiasm for a president who promised to shake things up but were quickly appalled at his ignorance and inattention. But what can they do? To doubt or disagree gets them fired. So, they pull a Schweik: “Yes, boss, your order is being carried out.” They know it’s a stupid order, but its negative consequences discredit the president, which they don’t mind. And no one can accuse them of opposition.

Washington’s current Schweiks improve the original model by also leaking to the media, alerting them to missteps they might miss (e.g., Bolton on Trump’s obsequious chat with Xi Jinping). This administration leaks far more than any other and has produced numerous tell-all books with Trump still in office.

In 2018, Trump decided that his money-losing golf courses needed a boost. He ordered his ambassador to London, billionaire Woody Johnson, a major donor more interested in prestige than in diplomacy, to persuade the British government to move the British Open golf tournament to Trump’s Turnberry course in Scotland. Trump keeps trying to drum up business for his resorts.

His deputy, Lewis Lukens, a career foreign service officer, warned against misuse of the ambassador’s office, but Johnson followed orders. London quietly rebuffed his urging, but word leaked out, embarrassing everyone. Lukens was fired in January 2019. State Department Inspector General Steve Linick, who was likely investigating the Johnson case, was fired in May 2020. Johnson remains ambassador.

Another example: Several Republican state attorneys general have filed to overturn the Affordable Care Act. They were joined by Federal Solicitor General Noel Francisco, making the federal government a plaintiff in a Supreme Court case . . . against the federal government. As a top official of the Justice Department, Francisco surely knew that the Constitution requires the administration to uphold laws, even ones they dislike. He left office July 3 for unstated reasons. How will Acting Solicitor General Jeff Wall handle the uncomfortable situation? (Suggestion: Do a Schweik.)

Trump’s latest effort to end Obamacare — in the middle of a pandemic — boosts the Democrats. If the ACA is ruled unconstitutional in its entirety, which the current suit demands, then overnight 23 million Americans lose health care coverage, and Medicaid for states shrinks, especially important for small hospitals. (Would midcoast Maine hospitals be affected?)

If Democrats control the House, Senate and White House in 2021, they could enact Medicare for All. Thus the anti-Obamacare drive may produce the opposite of what Republicans want: a giant, single-payer federal health plan. Schweik couldn’t have done it better. The timing serves Democrats, even though the Supreme Court won’t rule until next year and may not hear oral arguments before the elections. The Democrats’ general theme is ready for TV ads: You could soon be uninsured.

Schweik may lurk in the order returning Michael Cohen to prison. The Justice Department surely knew that preventing him from completing a book is no grounds for reincarceration, and the judge immediately threw it out. The attendant publicity could make the Cohen book a best-seller, as it did the Bolton and Mary Trump books.

Another Schweik-strike may be ordering states to reopen, making COVID hit big just before election day. And orders to not count undocumented immigrants in the census may make many legal Latinos fear getting counted, possibly costing sunbelt states (Republican) congressional seats. Go ahead, census officials, undercount.

Many Trump appointees supposed they could contribute by informing and cautioning the administration; they would be guardrails. But their advice bounces off, so they obey orders, keep their jobs and embarrass their bosses, a sort of Schweikian hat trick.

Leakers try to show they are patriotic good guys and not simply enablers, which helps them retain credibility and employability after their government service. Tell-all books will soon appear from unsung heroes who were always on the side of the angels. They may be telling the truth.