Pak: The Power of Anonymity

Why that anti-Trump op-ed had everyone talking, and for such a long time.

by Eowyn Pak | 9/20/18 2:10am

The anonymous “I am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration” op-ed published in the New York Times is not powerful solely for its content. Half of its power can be attributed to its author’s anonymity. Before I argue on anonymity’s behalf, however, it is critical to acknowledge that the author is anonymous only to a certain degree. The New York Times wrote that the author is a senior official in the Trump administration, and I, for one, am inclined to believe them. Not only does the New York Times rarely ever publish op-eds with anonymous authors, but as CNN’s Chris Cuomo puts it, would the NYT really “risk their reputation on a kill shot like this if it was proven to be false?” Such a deed, according to Cuomo, would be considered a heavy “miscarriage of journalism.”

Psychology studies have shown that anonymity can make people unusually honest, which might imply that anonymity has allowed this author to reveal more than he or she normally would have in this article. But in addition to fostering more forthcoming inclinations, anonymity is powerful because of its single-handed ability to make anyone (within reason) a candidate of suspicion, met with unmatched paranoia. 

Although readers know the rank of this writer, they are still left with quite a few potential candidates, including, most notably in the media, Vice President Mike Pence. Some characteristics of the op-ed are idiosyncratic to Pence. For instance, the op-ed uses the term “lodestar,” a very unusual term. What even is a lodestar? I looked it up on Google and received an equally unusual definition: “a star that is used to guide the course of a ship, especially the Pole Star.” It can be used metaphorically for someone who serves as an inspiration or intellectual guide. It turns out that since 2001, Pence has used “lodestar” multiple times in both his writing and public statements, like at a speech delivered to the U.N. in Sept. 2017, at the Jack Kemp Leadership Award Dinner and during another speech in February of this year delivered in Tokyo alongside Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, to name a few. 

In addition, computer analysis found that the syntax of the op-ed piece was unique. On average, each sentence of the op-ed consisted of 19.3 words, a short length for the typical government statement. By comparison, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders’s statement on Syria on Sept. 4th of this year averaged about 31 words per sentence, and Trump’s letter to the Senate on Aug. 28th averaged 30 words per sentence. Interestingly, Mike Pence consistently uses short sentences. On his administration plan for space delivered on Aug. 23rd in Houston, he used 19.7 words per sentence. At the American Legion’s 100th national convention on Aug. 30th, he used 17.6 words per sentence. In his recent speech for the late Senator John McCain? 17.4 words per sentence. On top of all that, the op-ed uses the passive voice, which is rare for government statements — except, of course, for Pence’s. In an old column about why President Bill Clinton should be impeached, he somehow managed to use the passive voice six times in 916 words.

Of course, these theories about Mike Pence come with a great deal of skepticism. Though New York Times editor James Dao has confirmed that the editors did not remove any stylistic clues to the writer’s identity, there are a number of caveats. The sample size for these observations was small, nor did they employ the scientific method to gather this evidence. It’s possible that the actual senior official may not have written the piece, and it was instead written by one of their staff. And then there’s the way Pence seems stares at Trump with stars in his eyes.

And yet the possibility that Pence wrote it is still out there. This kind of thrill from uncertainty is akin to wild conspiracy theories that may be logically bogus but keep people hooked nonetheless.

If the author had revealed themselves, I think the course of events afterwards would follow the same narrative of anti-Trump resistance — as in, the stories would fizzle out of the media almost immediately. We already have a list of known inside-dissenters. For example, ex-Acting Attorney General Sally Yates refused to defend Trump’s Jan. 27 executive order banning immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries, and ex-Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin criticized the “toxic, chaotic, disrespectful and subversive environment” in Washington he deemed responsible for the government’s failure to achieve anything substantial for veterans’s needs. Both Yates and Shulkin were dismissed from Washington. Both wrote op-ed pieces for the New York Times. And both, while admirable for their resistance, were forgotten in days. Anonymity, on the other hand, made “I am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration” viral. 

Trump supporters call this op-ed writer a coward and resent them for undermining the power of the presidency. On the other end of the spectrum, the writer is criticized for initiating a “destructive brand of politics instead of taking a more effective stand by resigning,” as Aja Romano wrote for Vox Media. However, I think the author did their job effectively. Countless others have called Trump idiotic, impulsive, petty, ineffective and all things negative. Yet as blatant resistors, Trump just had them removed without a gray hair. Now, Trump is leading a paranoid witch hunt to have that op-ed writer identified and brought in for treason. The author succeeded in offering insight into the inner-workings of the administration that people were actually willing to listen and react to. This disruption may be what some might label as an indicative harbinger of change.

The fact that the Trump administration has reacted in the way it has gives reason for closer scrutiny. As Chris Cuomo puts it in an interview released shortly after the op-ed, “What the president has done in reaction to the last two days screams concern that he’s dealing with the truth. With him going on a hunt in the White House for who talked to Woodward, for him saying The New York Times has to turn over their source to the government as a matter of national security? Do you realize how crazy that notion is, to even suggest, let alone from a president?” 

And all of this resulted from the absence of a few characters. 

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