The Undermining of the Republic

The suspicious circumstances around the firing of FBI director James Comey reveal this administration’s very real threats to our established system of checks and balances, and hence our democracy. This situation exemplifies a very general principle: how systems of human interactions can rather easily be subverted by those acting in bad faith. For simplicity, I will refer to these systems of human interactions as “games” (as in “game theory”). You can think of the following in terms of a literal board game, where people must interact by following a set of rules in order for the game to be fair and fun. But the arguments I make also apply to more serious interactions, such as by elected officials or public institutions. In particular, they highlight why this administration’s actions are so dangerous for the country.

There are at least three types of bad actors who can disrupt a game. The most benign is the occasional rule-breaker. In the gaming world, this could be someone who forms a non-existent word in Scrabble. In the policy arena, this could be an official who participates in a policy decision where they have conflicts of interest, or an agency that skips a required part of a legal process. These rule-breakers are caught by oversight mechanisms of various sorts: other Scrabble players, ethics agencies, the media. While these violations make the game less efficient, the fact that they occur rarely makes it possible for the system to self-correct.

A more serious sort of bad actor is the repeat offender, one who repeatedly breaks the rules of the game. Imagine playing with someone who repeatedly and knowingly forms non-existent Scrabble words, turn after turn. In the policy world, this could be an elected official who consistently has conflicts of interest or an agency which refuses to follow established procedures in spite of being warned. These repeat offenses cause more damage to the game because they wear down the checks and balances: they deplete the enthusiasm, budget, time, and attention of oversight mechanisms, be they fellow Scrabble players, enforcement agencies, or the media. They can slowly grind the system to a standstill over time.

The worst actor is the underminer, someone who directly attacks the very oversight mechanisms of the game. For example, a person who destroys all accessible dictionaries makes it impossible for the Scrabble players to keep checking each other. In the policy world, an underminer would be someone who attacks the ethics agencies that police wrongdoing, or the media that expose it so that public pressure can be brought to bear. To the extent that undermining these oversight mechanisms succeeds, it effectively tosses out the rules so that anything goes. At this point, those who can leave the game will likely do so (for example, fellow Scrabble players will refuse to play with the troublemaker). But in systems where people can’t leave (say, a society with a government gone off the rails), this lack of checks and balances results in social instability, frustration, and lack of opportunities for those who don’t benefit from the arbitrary favor of the bad actor. It corrupts the whole system.

This analysis reveals Trump to be both a repeat offender and an underminer. He has repeatedly issued executive orders on shaky legal ground, thus leading to extra work both for oversight groups in challenging them and for our judiciary in reviewing them. He has repeatedly refused to participate in many essential forms of accountability, such as releasing his tax returns or divulging his contacts with Russia. He has refused to distance himself from potential conflicts of interest. All these violations, coming in quick succession, divert the resources of our government from what it is supposed to be doing, working for the benefit of the American people, to the even more fundamental work of seeking to keep our Constitutional system functioning so that it can continue to be accountable. All this extra work, which normally is a background, low-level self-correction that keeps our elected officials in check, is now a giant undertaking that grinds government down.

In addition to all this, Trump is also actively undermining our essential oversight mechanisms. He consistently attacks the legitimacy of the press as an institution whenever outlets report anything not to his liking. He insults and criticizes courts that do not rule in his favor. This is particularly dangerous in light of his not-so-subtle coded calls for intimidation or worse at campaign rallies and on social media. Most recently, his firing of Comey and his tweeted insinuation of having “tapes,” coming in the middle of the FBI oversight investigation into possible Russian ties, further corrodes the independence of our various checks and balances that seek to verify the government remains accountable to and works for the benefit of American voters.

This is why Trump presents such a monumental challenge to our country. It’s not just that his policies are bad, though many people think they are. It’s more fundamental than that: his actions undermine the authority of our Republic by seeking to eliminate basic rules and accountability. We all need to recognize the gravity of this threat so that we may protect our fundamental creed: government of the people, by the people, for the people.