Donald Trump is at war with his own government. And on at least one front of the administration’s campaign—the demolition of the State Department—the damage is even more severe than we imagine. It is also more reparable.
What makes the White House’s efforts so destructive is not just the venality and vindictiveness of the president, or even the stupidity of sidelining or driving away professional diplomats at a moment when the coronavirus is spreading, great-power competition is simmering, and regional conflicts are bubbling. George Packer’s recent dispatch from the front lines of Trump’s war paints a vivid portrait not only of the targeted strikes against experienced and honorable public servants, but also of the indiscriminate attacks on the institutions they animate and, in turn, the citizens they serve.
If that was all that was arrayed against our institutions, however, their defense and recovery would not be so daunting. The State Department also faces a set of deeply rooted challenges.
At home, the currents of congressional abdication and enablement have been flowing for many years, but now they are accelerating—with partisan investigations growing in number and intensity in inverse proportion to sensible, proactive legislation and oversight. A skeptical and distracted American public, so conditioned by our discourse to see the government as the source of all ills, is blinded to the risk of the government’s hollowing out. Administrations of both parties have intensified the drift in American diplomacy, and the State Department—sluggish, passive-aggressive, and risk-averse—has often gotten in its own way. Across the government, belittled public servants are less able to protect democratic guardrails, which are only as sturdy as the people who defend them.