George Packer writes that the Trump presidency has exposed how brittle are the institutions that people thought formed the solid basis of this country’s democracy. He looks at the factors that led to this state and says that those who believed that they and the institutions they served could serve as a counterbalance to Trump completely underestimated the fact that he thought of the government as if it were a private company and he was the owner and thus they had to do whatever he said.
James Baker, the former general counsel of the FBI, and a target of Trump’s rage against the state, acknowledges that many government officials, not excluding himself, went into the administration convinced “that they are either smarter than the president, or that they can hold their own against the president, or that they can protect the institution against the president because they understand the rules and regulations and how it’s supposed to work, and that they will be able to defend the institution that they love or served in previously against what they perceive to be, I will say neutrally, the inappropriate actions of the president. And I think they are fooling themselves. They’re fooling themselves. He’s light-years ahead of them.”
The adults were too sophisticated to see Trump’s special political talents—his instinct for every adversary’s weakness, his fanatical devotion to himself, his knack for imposing his will, his sheer staying power. They also failed to appreciate the advanced decay of the Republican Party, which by 2016 was far gone in a nihilistic pursuit of power at all costs. They didn’t grasp the readiness of large numbers of Americans to accept, even relish, Trump’s contempt for democratic norms and basic decency. It took the arrival of such a leader to reveal how many things that had always seemed engraved in monumental stone turned out to depend on those flimsy norms, and how much the norms depended on public opinion. Their vanishing exposed the real power of the presidency. Legal precedent could be deleted with a keystroke; law enforcement’s independence from the White House was optional; the separation of powers turned out to be a gentleman’s agreement; transparent lies were more potent than solid facts. None of this was clear to the political class until Trump became president.
But the adults’ greatest miscalculation was to overestimate themselves—particularly in believing that other Americans saw them as selfless public servants, their stature derived from a high-minded commitment to the good of the nation.
When Trump came to power, he believed that the regime was his, property he’d rightfully acquired, and that the 2 million civilians working under him, most of them in obscurity, owed him their total loyalty. He harbored a deep suspicion that some of them were plotting in secret to destroy him. He had to bring them to heel before he could be secure in his power. This wouldn’t be easy—the permanent government had defied other leaders and outlasted them. In his inexperience and rashness—the very qualities his supporters loved—he made early mistakes. He placed unreliable or inept commissars in charge of the bureaucracy, and it kept running on its own.
But a simple intuition had propelled Trump throughout his life: Human beings are weak. They have their illusions, appetites, vanities, fears. They can be cowed, corrupted, or crushed. A government is composed of human beings. This was the flaw in the brilliant design of the Framers, and Trump learned how to exploit it. The wreckage began to pile up. He needed only a few years to warp his administration into a tool for his own benefit. If he’s given a few more years, the damage to American democracy will be irreversible.
This is the story of how a great republic went soft in the middle, lost the integrity of its guts and fell in on itself—told through government officials whose names under any other president would have remained unknown, who wanted no fame, and who faced existential questions when Trump set out to break them.
Packer then goes on to describe at length case after case of how Trump turned all these supposedly independent institutions into his personal agencies. In many cases, he says that professionals in the various agencies remained silent in the face of the most outrageous actions because of fears for their careers or because they felt that they could be quietly effective in blunting some of the worst excesses. But they could not stop or even slow the steamroller that was crushing the institutional norms that they had taken for granted were unbreakable.
As the executive orders and other requests for the office’s approval piled up, many of them of dubious legality, one of [Office of Legal counsel in the department of justice Erica] Newland’s supervisors took to saying, “We’re just following orders.” He said it without irony, as a way of reminding everyone, “We work for the president.” He said it once to Newland, and when she gave him a look he added, “I know that’s what the Nazis said, but we’re not Nazis.”
“The president has said that some of them are very fine people,” Newland reminded him.
“Attorney General Sessions never said that,” the supervisor replied. “Steve never said that, and I’ve never said that. We’re not Nazis.” That she could still have such an exchange with a supervisor seemed in itself like a reason not to leave.
But Newland, who is Jewish, sometimes asked herself: If she and her colleagues had been government lawyers in Germany in the 1930s, what kind of bureaucrat would each of them have been? There were the ideologues, the true believers, like one Clarence Thomas protégé. There were the opportunists who went along to get ahead. There were a handful of quiet dissenters. But many in the office just tried to survive by keeping their heads down. “I guess I know what kind I would have been,” Newland told me. “I would have stayed in the Nazi administration initially and then fled.” She thinks she would have been the kind of official who pushed for carve-outs in the Nuremberg Race Laws, preserving citizenship rights for Germans with only partial Jewish ancestry. She would have felt that this was better than nothing—that it justified having worked in the regime at the beginning.
What this article reveals about the Republican party and indeed much of America is not flattering and makes the future look very grim.
Perhaps the country will wake up from this nightmare and realize that to preserve democracy requires checks and balances that have real teeth and do not depend upon norms that can be violated by a sociopathic president. Past crises such as the Great Depression resulted in things like the New Deal. Also the Savings and Loans crisis of the 1980s resulted in a radical restructuring of those institutions and even resulted in one of the heads going to jail. But that rectifying drive following crises no longer seems to operate, as can be seen in what happened after the financial crisis of 2008. The banks and many other financial institutions that were supposedly too big to fail were not forced to radically restructure or made smaller but instead were allowed to operate as before and got even bigger with the same people in charge who got even richer.