Jack Smith is no hero

The special prosecutor is a professional doing his job — and that is exactly why Trump fears him

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published June 17, 2023 8:00AM (EDT)

Special Counsel Jack Smith makes a statement from the Special Counsel office in Washington on Thursday, June 9, 2023. (Tom Brenner for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Special Counsel Jack Smith makes a statement from the Special Counsel office in Washington on Thursday, June 9, 2023. (Tom Brenner for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Special counsel Jack Smith is not a hero, he is just a man. Although it may seem counterintuitive, that is one of the main reasons why Donald Trump and his crime cabal are so afraid of Jack Smith.

A hero is someone who acts selflessly to help others — and does so at great personal risk to themselves. They are not paid or trained to help others. A person can be brave and courageous without necessarily being a hero. By their very nature, true heroes are uncommon.

During his decades-long career, Smith has shown himself to be an extremely skilled and highly competent legal professional and public servant. He has successfully prosecuted international war criminals, corrupt politicians, and members of criminal organizations. The special counsel is methodical, focused and task-oriented. In a recent profile, the New York Times described his career thus far:

Former colleagues said he stood out from the start. He was more intense and more focused than many of his peers. He was known for his succinct and effective courtroom style — so much so that senior attorneys in the office would advise junior prosecutors to watch his trials and take notes, according to a person who worked with him in Brooklyn….

During a panel discussion on "Morning Joe", MSNBC host Jonathan Lemire shared that "Trump insiders" are deeply fearful of Smith — as they should be:

He is someone who seems immune to what their typical playbook is, which is the smoke screen and the attacks, the assertions of bias and, to this point, that just hasn't worked." 

It is no surprise why Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed Smith as special counsel, giving him the responsibility for bringing Trump to justice in what will truly be "the trial of the century." Smith has summoned his deep skills and talents to develop a devastating case against the traitor ex-president. If convicted, Donald Trump could potentially spend the rest of his natural life in federal prison.

Jack Smith is highly trained, well-compensated, and is not acting selflessly as he pursues justice. In all, he is simply doing his job very well and in accordance with his oath and responsibilities at the Department of Justice as a public servant. So, again, Jack Smith is no hero.

There are many people like Jack Smith in the United States government who do their jobs quietly and expertly in service to the American people and their democracy every day. Donald Trump, like other fascists, demagogues, and authoritarians despise such people because they view them as roadblocks in their plans for total and corrupt power. Such malign actors believe that the state is an extension of their personal interests and ego; the rule of law and the bureaucracy are to be bent to their will.

The label of "hero" places unfair expectations on a person, leaving them in an almost inevitable position to disappoint.

In that way, Donald Trump, like Vladimir Putin and other enemies of real democracy is committed to what political scientists, historians, and other experts have described as "personalist rule." In a 2021 essay in the Economist, historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat explained, "The concept of "personalist rule"—which organises government institutions around the self-preservation of a leader whose private interests prevail over national ones—provides a useful frame to understand the challenge to democracy and how to overcome it. As dire as turns to illiberalism look, strongmen have particular vulnerabilities and society can take specific actions to curb their behaviour."

At the Daily Beast, David Rothkopf details how to take advantage of such a worldview: 

During his presidency, Trump was regularly frustrated by the fact that government officials—appointees as well as career officials in the civil service, the military, the intelligence community and the foreign service—were an impediment to the autocratic impulses about which he often openly fantasized. (Remember the time he said he wished his staff would "cower" like North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un's? He wasn't kidding.)...

But Trump's real issue with career professionals and even many of the senior officials he himself appointed was not that they "reported to no one," but that instead they actually understood to whom they did report: the American people. They took their oaths of office seriously, which on a regular basis during the Trump years meant that they foiled some of Trump's craziest or most dangerous plans by pointing out they were unconstitutional, illegal or gravely damaging to U.S. national interests.

Time and time again, when Trump's inner circle clicked their heels and said "yessir" and the GOP-led Congress ignored its constitutional responsibilities, really bad ideas were ultimately stopped, slowed or diluted by senior government officials who actually understood the concept and responsibilities of public service.

We have seen extreme examples of how this worked in the course of the Jan. 6 Committee hearings. 

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At the Brookings Institution, John Hudak highlights the importance of career government professionals and what may happen if Trump and the other Republican fascists are allowed to purge them:

Regardless of what you believe about the permanent government, what is its alternative? It is an executive branch staffed entirely via patronage. In a patronage system, the bulk of the civilian executive branch staff is hand-selected by the president—a system in which each employee of the government owes their allegiance to the president. In its first century of its existence, the U.S. largely operated in this manner. The government was not predominantly staffed by qualified professionals, but by those to whom the president owed political favors. Under that system—one distanced from career civil servants and that at times calls on them to fill certain policy-focused appointments—the government workforce would have far fewer Bill Taylors, George Kents, Fiona Hills, and Alexander Vindmans. Instead, the bureaucracy would look more like the White House political staff, packed with Mick Mulvaneys, Kellyanne Conways, and Stephen Millers. 

Sick societies produce sick leaders. Institutions and organizations reflect the qualities and personalities of their leader(s) and members. Given that Trump has repeatedly shown himself to be a sociopath if not a psychopath, a criminal, immoral and evil, a malignant narcissist, delusional, violent, a fascist autocrat and a de facto cult leader, if he gets his way the entire United States government apparatus would take on those traits. In essence, the United States government would become a type of fascist Cthulhu monster, an extension of Trump's evil twisted mind and pathological impulses.

Whatever the outcome(s) may be in Donald Trump's trial for violating the Espionage Act and other laws, we should still resist the impulse to describe special counsel Jack Smith as some type of hero. To hoist that title on him is in many ways an unfair burden because it makes the day-to-day hard work of following through on his tasks and responsibilities into something rarified, almost magical, and thus unbelievable. The label of "hero" also places unfair expectations on a person, leaving them in an almost inevitable position to disappoint. Special counsel Robert Mueller is a prime example of such a fate.

Heroes are real. But Jack Smith is not one of them and that is a good thing. He is instead a man, a human being, like the rest of us, who decided to do his job which in this case means enforcing the law and holding Donald Trump accountable for his many crimes.

In the end, for American democracy and its society to survive the Trumpocene and the larger neofascist nightmare and then ensure such a disaster never takes place again, we the Americans are going to need many more career public servants and government professionals like Jack Smith.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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