I don’t know for certain that Emily Murphy gets up in the morning, looks in the mirror and says to herself, “You are a good person.” But I am willing to bet that she does. Most people in her position—most people who are undermining the rules of their group, destroying their institution, harming their society—are doing so because they have become convinced that they are good people, virtuous people, brave people, dedicated people. Nothing suggests that Murphy is an exception.
Murphy is the head of the General Services Administration, the unglamorous bit of the federal government that actually runs the federal government. Part of her job—a part that no one has ever before considered controversial or even noteworthy—is to “ascertain” who has won the U.S. presidential election, and then to release the congressionally mandated funds that allow the winner to begin his transition. Usually, that process also unlocks cooperation between incoming and outgoing officials. Before leaving office in 2017, aides to Barack Obama had prepared elaborate explanations of the state of the world, including a 69-page playbook for how to manage a pandemic. They handed the documents over to Donald Trump’s transition team, which ignored them.
But the decision to bungle his own transition was Trump’s. The Obama team did not hinder him in any way, and the GSA certainly did not. Of course, many people were upset about Trump’s election at the time, and many suspected Russian interference in the 2016 campaign. Those suspicions were more than justified: Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report would eventually show how Russian-controlled social-media accounts, coupled with the Russian security-service hack of the Democratic National Committee, sought to affect voters’ perceptions of Hillary Clinton. But they did not render the voting fake or the voting machines dysfunctional, and nobody in any senior post ever claimed that they had. Nobody—no civil servant, no political appointee, no politician—tried to stop the transition either. The rules were the rules.
But now it is 2020. For four years, the White House has been occupied by a team of people who do not care about the rules. The president and his family have disregarded rules about security clearances, rules about the use of private email for public purposes, rules about the intersection of political and government business. They have profited financially from the presidency while still in the White House. They have sought to use American foreign-policy tools for personal and political gain. While they did so, they accustomed everyone around them to accept new standards. Slowly, members of the Trump administration got used to tolerating blatant, bold-faced lies. Dozens, hundreds, thousands of lies—important lies, stupid lies, insignificant lies, lies about attendance at the inauguration, lies about economic growth, lies about a hurricane forecast in Alabama.
Over time, everyone who worked for Trump learned to tolerate his lying. Some concluded that they had to lie too in order to keep their jobs. Some began to believe the lies, because that made things easier. Some began to think defending the president’s lies was patriotic, because he was the president. Some became excited by the lies, because they broke so many taboos. That feeling of radicalism kept them going, gave them strength. When the president began to lie about the election result, they were ready to defend him.
Not everybody has succumbed to this ideology. Just last week, Chris Krebs, the head of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, was fired for refusing to lie. He would not support the president’s baseless claims of electoral fraud, and so he was told to leave his job.
But not everybody is Chris Krebs. Clearly, Emily Murphy is not Chris Krebs. Confronted with the reality of Joe Biden’s victory, and with the predictably mendacious reaction of the president, Murphy, along with an astonishing number of elected and appointed Republican officials, has chosen to stand by him too. “Friends” are now speaking to the national media on her behalf. One of these “friends” told CNN that Murphy is distressed: “She’s doing what she believes is her honest duty as someone who has sworn true allegiance to the Constitution of the United States of America, and the laws that govern her position.”
Well, no. She is not doing her honest duty. She is behaving badly, dishonestly, unfairly. She is violating the Constitution of the United States of America by refusing to recognize that the election is over, that Trump’s lawsuits and legal games are frivolous, and that the transition has begun. But she, like so many others in the White House, seems to believe the exact opposite: that it is part of her job to support radical, norm-breaking, democracy-destroying lies. Like so many others in the Republican Party, she appears to think that election results do not need to be accepted; that legal votes can be challenged; that courts and political pressure can be used to change the result.
In the grand historical scheme of things, this particular form of delusion is not uncommon. A lot of historical and political-science work has been devoted in recent years to bureaucrats who become ideologues—though I cringe to mention it, because most of it applies to people in much more severe and dramatic situations. In the years since Hannah Arendt coined the expression banality of evil, a number of historians have begun to argue, for example, that most of the Nazi bureaucrats who later described themselves as “just following orders” were doing no such thing: They were active and enthusiastic partisans, imagining themselves to be brave members of the Nazi avant-garde. They thought they were good people.
A similar argument has been made retrospectively about the participants in the infamous “shock experiments” carried out by the Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram in the 1960s. Most of those who agreed to deliver a series of what they thought were painful electric shocks to a person in the next room were doing so not out of an ingrained instinct for obedience, as Milgram claimed at the time, but because Milgram had truly convinced them of the significance of their task. They didn’t see themselves as delivering pain, but rather being part of a cutting-edge scientific project.They thought they were good people too.
Murphy is being asked neither to participate in Nazi crimes nor to administer electric shocks. To do her job correctly, all she has to do is follow the law, let the transition begin, and allow the next president of the United States to prepare for the economic and public-health disaster that has been left to him by the current occupant of the White House. She will not be jailed or imprisoned if she starts the transition; and because Joe Biden will be president, she is going to lose her job anyway.
The only explanation for her behavior is the most obvious one: She has bought the ideology; she has become a true believer; she has accepted the lies. If so, she can look in the mirror and see someone virtuous, brave, and dedicated—a good person, just like President Trump.