New York Magazine

“Am I an accomplice to this terrible thing that’s happening?”

Federal employees contemplate what would make them leave.

“EVERY DAY IS A LITTLE BIT WORSE,” a career employee at the Department of Homeland Security said when we talked in July. And this was before the president was equating white-supremacist demonstrators with those protesting against them and threatening volatile dictators with the possibility of military action. “But I can’t just say ‘Fuck off’ and leave,” the federal worker added. “I have a mortgage.” That reality is but one dilemma for the nonpolitical civil servant seven months into this divisive administration. Before Trump’s inauguration, there were estimates that a quarter or even a third of the career workers in federal agencies were likely to quit in protest. But so far, there’s been no mass defection. In part, it’s because most federal workers, at least the ones who aren’t political appointees, expect to work for presidents of both parties. At the same time, this administration has forced even those who see their work as a calling to contemplate what would make their jobs untenable. In other words, what’s their redline? What if you’re doing good work in your department but are appalled by actions in other areas? Are you still complicit? What if instead of being engaged in some dramatic, obvious wrongdoing, your department is simply deprived of oxygen? Over the past few months, I sought out a number of these disgruntled workers to pose those questions. Their answers, all given under the strict condition of anonymity, add up to a far-ranging examination of what it means to be a public servant.

“If you remove people’s purpose, they’re not going to be able to function.”

DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY | Over 5 Years

“BY THE RIGHT, I feel like we’re being made out to be this monolith of incompetence, and on the left we’re seen as this potential bastion of resistance. And, you know, most of the people I work with are just, day to day, trying to make the best decisions on behalf of the American people. That’s not always a clear thing, and we’re not always going to get it right. But we’re trying.

I’m a dedicated civil servant. This is what I wanted to do. I marched in the Women’s March, and I didn’t vote for Trump. But I can work with people I don’t agree with if they’re people of principle. But there’s no principle here. I don’t know what the fuck they’re employing, but it’s not principle. We talk about anger in the resistance, but the sentiment that most of my colleagues and I are feeling isn’t anger. It’s not a hot emotion. It’s sorrow. It’s like this low-grade depression. If you remove people’s purpose, they’re not going to be able to function.

In the previous administration, and I’m not saying they were perfect at this, but there was generally a sense that you have to bring stakeholders with you when you’re making drastic changes. This administration—it’s like they don’t

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