“You must not abandon the ship in a storm because you cannot control the winds…What you cannot turn to good, you must at least make as little bad as you can.” These words were written by the English jurist Saint Sir Thomas More. He captures a very important insight into any political reality: We are afloat until we have sunk. And if we give up before we have exhausted every possible recourse—do we share any of the blame for the consequences?

I wonder whether we have done all we can to make our present political reality as little bad as possible. Recall November of 2016, when photos surfaced of a luxe dinner hosted by then-President-elect Donald Trump to discuss Mitt Romney’s “candidacy” for Secretary of State. We all remember the photo—Trump with the Cheshire-cat grin, Romney with a pained simper. We all remember the backlash against Romney, the near-universal charges that he was selling his soul to Trump. Such outlets as Entertainment Weekly and The Hollywood Reporter and Slate curated all the best jabs, reminding us that working in Trump’s government would not be smiled upon.

The result of this uproar was a deafening silence. After this fracas, few if any once-lauded politicians came forward to work in Trump’s government. In the breakneck rotation of cabinet officials, no new hire came aboard nor long remained before pundits wondered why ever in the world anyone would work in Trump’s government. I make no argument of causation; I only observe a correlation. After that photo surfaced, and perhaps before, very many of us thought that people of principle should not serve in the Trump government, on principle. Accordingly, those with principle should not check the inevitable abuse of power, on principle.

We thought that one could be principled, or work in the Trump government, but not both. We were wrong. We considered too little and too late that one could hold a position of power, but use it to oppose the stream of bigotry and disorder that has issued from this administration. Participation in the Trump government is not complicity with the Trump government. Sally Yates was acting Attorney General under the Trump administration. Was she complicit? Senators Kamala Harris and John McCain are sitting members of a Congress which works with the Trump administration. Are they complicit? It is not “work-or-resist.” One can do both, but too few people really try.

We forgot that the American government is our government, regardless of who  sits at its head. If we were so sure that the President would make a mess of things, why did we think it unthinkable that anyone able to reign in the administration’s excesses should join its ranks? We boarded a ship captained by an Ahab, and thought it best that “no one be involved” as he sailed us to ruin.

And now more than ever, now that we do not have it, we need good government. Now we are confronted by threat and counter-threat in a puerile game of nuclear brinksmanship with North Korea. The United Nations has done little to stop the ticking of the nuclear clock, and our own President has gone out of his way to remind the world that he has a nuclear saber and is not afraid to rattle it. At a time when the government is so lacking people of principle who could curb its excesses, we wonder how the world has come so close to nuclear war. I offer up one more hypothetical in a time rife with them: what could have happened, if we had not been averse to principle and competence taking part in this government.

Of course, we can do little to control a childish narcissist’s choice of cabinet officials. Even if a more balanced cabinet had somehow been assembled, it is doubtful that they could have had any real effect on the current administration. But our current lack of leadership offers a much-needed moral, and poses a difficult question. 

When people came forward to make this administration as little bad as they could, we ostracized them. We decided early on not to improve the government that held power over us. We forgot that there is a complicity in commission, and a complicity in omission. We forgot that there is a complicity in doing, and a complicity in standing by. And yet, confronted by the reality of a Trump White House, we ruled out the possibility of a principled opposition within government before we even tried it.

Have we been doing all we can to make this government as little bad as we can? If the price of our freedoms and values and institutions is participating in a system of which Trump happens to the head, it is a price we should gladly pay. There is only one path in our system of law to make our values and vision a reality: the government, regardless of who heads it. And he can only dictate policy if we let him.

In Herman Melville’s epic Moby Dick, Ahab tells his crew what they are about. “And this is what ye have shipped for, men! To chase that white whale on both sides of land, and over all sides of earth, till he spouts black blood and rolls fin out.” The ship is sailing, and we are on it; Ahab is at the helm. We cannot undo the past, but we can take command of our future. Stay or leave, we cannot abdicate our responsibility for what happens next. The question is this: are we really doing all that we can, to make things as little bad as we can?

Tim Kowalczyk is a Trinity junior. His column, "the academy matters," runs on alternate Thursdays.