By Emily Hall
Public Service in the Age of Trump
By EMILY HALL
In the wake of 2016’s presidential election upset, have Harvard students changed their minds about public service? The answer seems to be a qualified “no”.
Last November’s shocking electoral triumph of now President Donald Trump over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was unexpected at Harvard, to say the least. Political operatives were caught off guard by the electoral result, and the administration is still far from full. Harvard graduates seem to be prime candidates for positions in the executive branch, and when Hillary was anticipated to win there was much talk of students trying to find jobs in her presidential administration. With Trump in the White House, though, some are refocusing their plans to make a different kind of impact. Others are simply refocusing themselves.
Michael Kikukawa ‘17, a senior in Lowell House who spent last summer campaigning for Hillary Clinton, said that while he “was always planning on working in public service,” the election has altered his path so that he plans to work in the non-profit sector rather than within government. While he would not want to work in the executive branch, he would definitely still consider working on Capitol Hill—but he’s looking at jobs in New York, at think tanks and NGOs because he would rather avoid Washington, DC for the next few years. Most importantly though, Kikukawa said, “I definitely want to be in a position in which I am engaged with fighting bad policies and working to make our country a better place.”
For others, the election had less of a direct outcome on their plans. Former President of the Harvard Republican Club (which notably denounced Donald Trump’s candidacy for president under his leadership last summer) Declan Garvey’s employment plans have not changed, but his goals within his job have been forced to realign. Garvey ‘17 will be working at Hamilton Place Strategies, a public affairs consulting firm in DC, after graduation. He’s happy with this decision, noting that “I was lucky to have been able to intern there this past summer, and even luckier to have the chance to go back full-time,” but his expectations for the job have changed. He noted that the “underlying assumption was that Hillary Clinton would be the next president,” which obviously did not happen. As a result, Garvey said, “Several policy issues that I hoped to work on —immigration, free trade, job retraining— don’t seem likely to be a priority under the Trump administration, so in that sense his election has changed the nature of the work I will be doing at HPS. That being said, I look forward to working on tax reform and other issues where the firm and the Trump administration align.”
Still others have decided to take a step back from politics altogether next year. John Acton ‘17, of Eliot House, said that the process of the election had a much larger impact on his future career plans than did the outcome. “Basically, during the constant fervor of reading every tweet about the election, I realized that I was a political addict and that I placed far more emotional importance on both 1) my personal involvement in the politics and 2) who holds power in D.C. than either actually merited,” Acton said.
Acton’s Christian faith also had an impact on his reorientation toward politics. He said that he believes “that the kingdom of God is more important than the kingdoms of men. This doesn’t make politics bad, but it does mean that politics should never be of ultimate significance. And politics often felt more important than anything else to me during this election. I also believe in a vision of America where what truly gives our lives value comes from completely apolitical things such as individuals, families, and communities, not from Washington D.C.” Acton was inspired by Senator Ben Sasse as well, who he says exemplifies his own values. He said this helped him realize “that my addiction to politics was fundamentally at odds with these values and in some ways jeopardized them. Not only that, but a political addiction is self-defeating, because anything that treats politics as the most important thing in the world will naturally turn into an obsession with political power rather than a treatment of politics as the service of something else.”
These fundamental changes in the way he viewed politics led Acton to take action to break his political addiction. He will be taking a job in the private sector, working for McKinsey’s Denver office next year. In the long term, however, Acton said “I hope to ultimately do some sort of public sector work in some capacity, because I really am passionate about this stuff and think there are tons of potential areas to serve meaningfully, be it by working for an elected official or politician, becoming a judge or government lawyer, running for office, or even serving on a local school board. I just want to ensure that any public service is because I actually believe it’s how I can best help others, not because I feel some sort of compulsion toward it.”
Garvey has also tried to distance himself from politics—to an extent. When asked about his perceptions changing as a result of the election, he said, “As someone who was opposed to Trump’s election, his meteoric rise to the presidency has been somewhat disheartening in that it seemed to signal the relative unimportance of qualities I previously deemed essential for public service: integrity, experience, thoughtfulness. While at times I want to —and have— stopped reading the news and tried to ignore the mess in Washington, the election has also motivated me to do what I can to fix what has become an incredibly polarized and stagnant system.”
The consequences of the election were less drastic for Michael Kikukawa’s conception of government careers. He said that his perception of them is largely the same, although “It’s more obvious now how provisional they are, and there are fewer of them that I could or would apply to, but I’ve always known that they aren’t a guarantee of a job.” He has found both disappointment and hope in those who are already in government, noting that “some public servants — both politicians and staffers — have changed what I might consider their morals to adapt to the current political climate. I wouldn’t want to be in a position in which I might compromise what I believe in for my job, and I honestly am a bit shocked by the number of people who either are compromising their principles or don’t have the principles that I thought they did. (I’m not talking liberal vs. conservative here.) I am reassured by people on both sides of the aisle who are refusing to normalize recent actions by our president, and who are, as the saying goes, putting country over party.”
Despite the surprises that came for many this past fall, many Harvard students remain determined to make a difference in the world. This is something of which we should be proud.
Emily Hall (firstname.lastname@example.org) is reassured that, as the world continues to change, her peers also continue to dedicate themselves to leaving the world better than they found it.