For the better part of two decades, we heard stories of young Americans galvanized into public service in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Their experiences were as varied as they were searing. Some lost relatives. Others endured the repeat footage of the south tower fireball from across the country.
In my case, I watched the Pentagon smolder atop a dorm at Georgetown University, where I was a college freshman. Several years later, I’d report for my first day of work at the CIA, that day—and that horrific scene—never far from my mind. For its part, the military registered a nearly double-digit percent enlistment increase following the attacks, a trend that persisted well into the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, while public service more broadly regained an allure it had not enjoyed in decades.
Now, more than 15 years later, most Americans under the age of 30 were born after that day or have little meaningful recollection of it. This post-9/11 generation has started entering the labor force. Many studies have found a lag, so far, in public service career paths among millennials. The question remains, in the absence of a similarly jarring collective experience: What centripetal forces will shape their career choices and, specifically, can public service remain a noble calling in the age of Trump?
To a large extent, the answer will depend on who becomes the protagonist of this period: President Trump or those public servants holding him and his Administration to account.
On their face, the trends of recent years—and recent months especially—would appear to engender formidable headwinds stalling the allure of public service. Despite its post-9/11 bump, military enlistment began to lag by 2005, weighed down, at least in part, by the Bush Administration’s mismanagement of the Iraq war, a central campaign issue in 2008. Younger Americans voted in droves that year for President Obama, whose campaign tapped into the idealistic spirit and drive, born in the crucible of the post-9/11 period, that defined my generation. What these same supporters found, however, was a hyper-partisan Washington whose antibodies did everything possible to fight the Obama agenda and neutralize the idealism that propelled him to the White House.
The 2016 election only accelerated this trend; instead of a transformational figure, voters were left to choose between the two most disliked presidential nominees in modern history. And during the presidential transition, and the first days of the Trump Administration, it appeared that public service could well go the way of the West Virginia mining industry—a dying field occupied only by the barest ranks needed to keep it afloat. Yes, there was opposition to the Trump agenda, epitomized most dramatically by the late January Women’s March. Yet it was a movement characterized more by roadblocks than inspiration to service.
Cue this Administration’s public-servants-turned-antagonists.
None has been more galvanizing than Sally Yates, then the acting attorney general. Her entrance into the oppositional lexicon in late January, in the form of a matter-of-fact letter to colleagues at the Department of Justice, was the first nail in the coffin for the Trump Administration’s travel ban, but—more significantly—it was a reminder of the persistent strength of our democratic system. She personified the notion that we are a nation of laws, not of the whims of individual men (or women). And just as critically, she stood prepared to take on the purported leader of the free world and his Administration through dint of decades of determined, principled public service. It wasn’t lost on the millions of protestors that hers was a path that virtually anyone could follow.
To be sure, Yates is a unique, but not singular, figure in this unfolding drama. Other public servants have since followed in her footsteps. Senior State Department officials, for example, have publicly condemned several of this Administration’s key foreign policy tenets, including the abandonment of the Paris climate accord, as well as the seemingly capricious approach to our traditional allies in the Persian Gulf, which have been whipsawed by contradictory messages on U.S. policy toward Qatar’s dispute with its neighbors. These voices have recently been joined by public servants from the Environmental Protection Agency and the President’s Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS protesting ignorant, misguided, and malign Administration policies.
Meanwhile, other public servants have waged a quieter, and often anonymous, battle against Trump, taking their concerns directly to the Fourth Estate. News accounts depicting this Administration’s mismanagement, negligence, and corruption have been striking for their reference to dozens of Administration sources. Virtually no Executive Branch department has been spared this internal dissent. In some cases, such as a supposedly aborted plan that would have authorized the CIA to reopen so-called black sites, these tactics had a deterrent effect. In others, public servants were able to slow the gears of government and raise the reputational costs for those involved. By rightly criticizing illegal leaks of classified information, the Administration has sought, unsuccessfully, to intimidate and besmirch a much broader swath of disgruntled public servants.
The sum total of the actions has served as a governor on an Administration seeking to run roughshod over our system of checks and balances. Indeed, its efforts to bypass the entire state bureaucracy and apparatus has galvanized elements of the federal workforce that have dutifully served presidents of both parties.
Beyond the ranks of government servants, however, the first months of this government have reminded America’s re-engaged citizenry that principles exist, as do those who would espouse them—and, critically, can be exercised—inside government as well as in the streets. Public service is primarily about doing good, but it’s also a vehicle to right wrongs—even when that wrong emanates from on high. It’s a lesson whose relevancy Americans had the luxury of being largely spared over recent decades.
It’s too soon to tell whether the acts of dissidents personified by Yates and her cohorts will remain an enduring feature throughout this Administration. Still, these dark months may well provoke a silver lining: a reminder for fellow citizens that public service is not about serving the President, but rather the Constitution and all for which it stands. Indeed, for the upcoming generation, the searing experience may well be this Administration’s efforts to ignore it.