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Donald Trump’s War on American Institutions

Photo: Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images

Over the past few months, several different developments in the Trump administration, as well as statements and actions by the president and those around him, provide useful insight into the direction and nature of this White House. To understand this fully, it is necessary to take a bigger-picture view of what Donald Trump is doing and what that means for our political system.

American democracy is based on the notion of dispersing power both horizontally among various federal institutions and agencies as well vertically through a system of federalism in which states and cities have a substantial amount of power. This often makes our system cumbersome, but it is also supposed to be a safeguard against authoritarianism or, if you prefer the 18th-century vernacular, tyranny. Accordingly, the only way for an aspiring autocrat to achieve his goals is to weaken these institutions. This is precisely what Trump is trying to do, and it’s the theme that brings together otherwise not obviously related actions by the administration. Thus far, Trump has been unsuccessful in his efforts to weaken powerful Democratic mayors and governors, but he will likely begin focusing more efforts there in the coming months. At the national level, on the other hand, his actions have been clear.

Some of Trump’s efforts to weaken institutions have taken the form of direct and often venal-seeming attacks on the media—an important nongovernmental institution—individual judges, and even Congress. Other times, this strategy is less apparent but equally important. For example, the appointment of Ben Carson as secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development received a fair amount of criticism because Carson has no relevant experience. Similarly, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has strong opinions about education but little experience to suggest she is capable of running an agency. These are not accidents: It is the reason these people, and others like them throughout the administration, were appointed.

The inevitable incompetence of Carson and DeVos, among other Trump appointees, will all but guarantee that their agencies will be unable to emerge as active centers of domestic policy.

Similarly, it might appear as if the widely reported diminished role of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the president’s statement that the much of the media are “enemies of the people,” efforts by the president to weaken the judiciary by referring to a federal judge as a “so-called judge,” and the administration’s disparaging of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) are separate and unrelated. In this context, it is easy and perhaps even necessary to get upset about each Trump outrage as it occurs, such as his recent accusation of “unprecedented overreach” on the part of the judiciary for rejecting an executive order that most high school students could figure out was unconstitutional. However, these actions are also part of the Trump administration’s broader effort to undermine institutions that play important roles in American government and democracy. Only when viewing these events together does this become so apparent.

For example, Robert Jervis, one of our best and most respected scholars of international relations, recently wrote in Foreign Policy,“Normally the most important position in the cabinet, the Secretary of State, has had little impact on the Trump administration so far. And, if anything, his role appears headed for further decline.” Jervis argues that Tillerson is the weakest secretary of state in a very long time, but it is also true that in many administrations, different agencies and individuals grapple for influence in that realm. Tillerson’s weakness is all the more significant because the normal sources of competition with the State Department, such as the NSC and the Defense Department, are also increasingly peripheral to foreign policy. Under President Trump, decision making in this realm has shifted away from these institutions and toward his personal advisers, notably Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner.

The president’s description of some of the best and most prestigious American media outlets as “enemies of the people” and the not-to-be- overlooked description of the media as “the opposition party” by Steve Bannon, the administration’s chief propagandist, are familiar to most people. These comments, of course, are un-American and represent an assault on the press, but when these statements are complimented by an aggressively and consistently dishonest president offering what even his own staff refer to, with apparent seriousness, as “alternative facts,” we see the same pattern emerging.

Trusted institutions are a threat to the president, so he seeks to weaken them and to replace them with himself.

For Trump’s base, it is now axiomatic that Trump’s tweets are more truthful than what the base refers to as the mainstream media. This is clear evidence of how successful Trump has been in his efforts to weaken that institution.

President Trump’s efforts to weaken the legislative branch have been aided by Congress’ seeming abdication of its constitutional responsibilities, beginning during the transition period with the unwillingness of Republican leaders there to investigate Russia’s role in the election or Trump’s ample conflicts of interest. Sean Spicer’s recent comments regarding the Congressional Budget Office—“If you’re looking to the CBO for accuracy, you’re looking in the wrong place”—are further evidence of the direction in which the White House wants to push Congress.

At times, the Trump administration has seemed disparate with populist-sounding promises competing with policy proposals aimed at helping the wealthy, or promises of a strong and aggressive foreign policy alongside pledges to isolate the United States from the rest of the world. Although this may seem chaotic and unfocused, one unifying theme of Trump’s presidency has emerged: the ongoing struggle by the White House to weaken and restrict all forms of institutional power that do not stem directly from the president. The continuity of our democratic system may well lie in the success or failure of that endeavor.