Conservatives have long abhorred the idea that an individual’s ability to check a sufficient number of intersectional boxes is somehow a job qualification. This defends not only the merit of the job by ensuring that a competent person holds it, but also defends the dignity of the job-holder by ensuring that they can stand on their merits, not their identities.
This mentality reflects a desire to see a world where “people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” in the words of Martin Luther King Jr. This isn’t to say that diversity isn’t important in an America only a few generations removed from the horrors of Jim Crow segregation. But it is a clear call to judge a person on their merits, irrespective of color or creed.
Unfortunately, conservatives have, of late, given in to the allure of identity politics, and the bullet-proof defense it all-too-often provides for the unqualified. The most recent example is the elevation of Richard Grenell, current ambassador to Germany, to acting director of national intelligence.
Grenell got his start in the world of politics as a spokesman for the American Mission to the United Nations under President George W. Bush. He parlayed this experience into a career in public affairs, punctuated briefly by a stint as a foreign policy spokesman for the 2012 Romney campaign before being abruptly fired. After hopping loudly aboard the Trump train and surviving a contentious Senate hearing, he took over as ambassador in 2018.
Ambassador Grenell has been an effective advocate for the United States in Europe, and for ending the criminalization of homosexuality around the globe. These are important professional and moral achievements. Neither of them qualifies him to be the top intelligence official in the United States.
Overnight, Grenell has gone from zero intelligence community background to overseeing 17 distinct agencies that comprise the United States’ intelligence community.
He has never served in uniform. He has never overseen a government agency. He has displayed none of the qualities that would otherwise provide the kinds of knowledge or skills to handle the role.
Conservative outlets and elected officials have hailed the president’s decision to welcome the first openly-gay member of his cabinet or have avoided the issue altogether, despite having pilloried liberals for advancing people, projects, and ideas simply because they were connected to some component of intersectionality.
This warped logic does not suddenly become a valuable lens through which to view the world simply because the shoe is now on the other foot.
It’s true that Grenell’s appointment is only on an acting – and therefore temporary – basis and President Trump has said that a replacement will be announced soon. Beyond that, recent abuses related to the FISA process and beyond have shaken the confidence of many Americans in clandestine organizations without effective oversight; Grenell seems poised to shake things up.
But applauding Grenell’s appointment misses the forest for the trees. Our country faces myriad global intelligence threats. Russia is seeking to undermine public confidence in our elections. Chinese hackers target American government agencies, companies, and private citizens. Iran remains a global and regional threat, and even with a cease-fire potentially on the horizon in Afghanistan, radical Islamic terrorism maintains a foothold around the globe. A man whose primary qualification was time spent on Fox News is now overseeing all of these global hotspots and more, with our election only seven months away.
For a national intelligence apparatus that once investigated and hounded individuals from among its ranks on the mere suspicion of homosexuality to now be led by an openly gay man is an enormous societal success. For the national intelligence apparatus to now be led by someone entirely unqualified to do so should be an enormous concern for everyone.
Drew Holden is a public affairs consultant in Washington, D.C. and a former Republican congressional staffer in the U.S. House of Representatives