What’s Broken—and What’s Still Working—in American Politics

One thing is unsurprising, one is heartening, and one is singularly depressing.

Zach Gibson / Reuters

I tried my best, through the first half of this year, to avoid getting caught up in the political emergencies of each day, so as to write about some longer-term developments that I know are more encouraging than current national-level trauma, and that I believe are at least as significant. My wife Deb and I physically absented ourselves from the capital, as described here, which provided some mental and emotional distance as well. Some.

But we’re now back, all in—physically present in D.C. (for now) and emotionally and mentally in the fray. This is a quick report on how the national struggle looks on re-immersion.

One aspect of mid-2017 public life seems unchanged—or rather, unsurprising. Another is more heartening than I might have expected six months ago. But a third is quite depressing, and raises the question of how well our political system can function if even one of its divided-power, checks-and-balances elements is severely impaired. To take them in order:

Unsurprising: This would be Donald Trump himself. The man we have seen in office is a foreseeable extension of the person we saw during his year and a half on the campaign trail. Through that period I did a running chronicle, the Trump Time Capsules, of what the candidate was indicating about characteristics that matter in a president. These include: his level of knowledge and sophistication on policy, his temperamental balance, his process of decision-making, his scrupulousness about truth, and his standards in allies, advisors, confidantes, and enemies.

The fact that Donald Trump wound up as president is a surprise in historical terms—and to me, since I asserted in mid-2015 that no one so inexperienced could be elected. Of course I was wrong, and stopped making any predictions about him after that. But nothing Trump has done as president should qualify as surprising. For any step he’s taken in these past six months—the tweets, the public feuds, the lurches back and forth in policy, the norm-breaking and information-gaffes—there’s a link back to some moment during the campaign. What the Atlantic said in its editorial urging a vote against him was based on what Trump had shown as a candidate but has borne out through his time in office.

We believe in American democracy, in which individuals from various parties of different ideological stripes can advance their ideas and compete for the affection of voters. But Trump is not a man of ideas. He is a demagogue, a xenophobe, a sexist, a know-nothing, and a liar. He is spectacularly unfit for office, and voters—the statesmen and thinkers of the ballot box—should act in defense of American democracy and elect his opponent.

Melania Trump’s success in avoiding further controversies, after her plagiarized-speech embarrassment nearly one year ago, is to her credit. Tiffany Trump has had the best PR run of the adult children, in that she’s mainly stayed out of the news. The mild surprise about the rest of them—Jared and Ivanka, Eric, and of course now Donald Jr.—is how unaware they appear to have been about the difference between running a family business and representing the president of the United States.

For Ivanka, this showed up (inter alia) in her unselfconsciously taking her father’s seat at the G20 meeting, a role that in other administrations would have fallen to the vice president, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, or some other constitutional officer. For Jared, it showed in the assumption that without any previous experience he could run half a dozen major portfolios, any one of which had been as much as James Baker, Leon Panetta, George Shultz, William Webster, or other bureaucratic masters and veterans had handled. It also showed in his assuming that the security-clearance form that asked for recent contact with representatives of foreign governments didn’t need to be taken seriously, or wouldn’t be checked. For Eric, it showed in the assumption that of course business and government interests would intersect. (Compare Trump family business with this 1988 letter from George H.W. Bush, as he ran for president, to his son, George W., about avoiding even the appearance of conflict of interest.) For Donald Jr. — well, you know.

But maybe, as with their father, such missteps are more unfortunate than unexpected. None of them had been part of anything like this before.

Heartening: More parts of the formal and informal U.S. constitutional system are still functioning more normally than might have been expected six months ago. Members of the judiciary are applying standards that predate this administration, and administration officials have complained but complied. A special counsel is building his staff and pursuing his work, with every indication that if Donald Trump were to fire him, some Republicans (along with all Democrats) would object and resist. From most Cabinet departments except the Pentagon, reports radiate about empty offices and downcast morale (as with Julia Ioffe’s memorable portrayal of a hollowed-out State Department). But it was conceivable before the inauguration that parts of the government might simply stop functioning, with no one empowered to make day-by-day operating decisions. Things are different now than they used to be, but the main functions go on.

As for the non-governmental parts of civic structure, the press has—overall—worked harder and more successfully to pick its way through this new terrain than most people might have foreseen, or feared. Of course, the press is infuriating and inconsistent, as it has always been. (See Paul Starr’s major book on the travails of the U.S. media from a dozen years ago, or my own broadside a decade before that.) Name your news outlet, and you can think of a dozen things it does wrong—with the exception, maybe, of the current Washington Post, which is in a new golden age. And even the Post has made a mistake or two. But compared with what you might have expected six months ago, reporters and editors have succumbed less either to “normalization” of historically unusual behavior, or boredom or distraction from matters of consequence, than they might have.

And the signs of engagement by Americans who, unlike reporters or civil servants aren’t paid to concern themselves with public affairs, are unmistakable: demonstrations and protests around the country to resist the proposed health-care law or to protect immigrants and refugees. Mayors and governors vowing to pursue climate-policy goals, even if the national government does not. Organized movements and individual decisions attracting new candidates for the hard work of running for office, at levels from Congress down to state and city elections, and including larger numbers of women and veterans of our recent wars.

It would be ridiculous to claim any of these happenings as objectively a “good” sign for America—for instance, that Air Traffic Control is still functioning or that the National Institutes of Health is still giving research grants. And they coincide with what, by my values, are very dark developments, starting with the break-up of families by newly empowered immigration agents. But by the standard of how things looked six months ago, this is a more functional America than many might have foreseen.

Discouraging: The major weakness these six months have revealed in our governing system is almost too obvious to mention, but I’ll name it anyway. It is the refusal, so far, by any significant Republican figure in Congress to apply to Donald Trump the standards its members know the country depends on for long-term survival of its government. A system of checks and balances relies on each of its component branches resisting overreach by the others. The judiciary has done its part; Paul Ryan’s House and Mitch McConnell’s Senate have not. We’re seeing the difference that can make.

If Trump’s White House were dictating a legislative agenda to their party-allies in Congress, he would merely be replicating what strong presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan tried to do. But Trump has barely any legislative proposals. What he has dictated instead is standards—a toleration for his own disregard of norms—and has reduced the set of standards that Republicans apply down to one: loyalty. There’s a reason Donald Trump could joke about shooting someone on Fifth Avenue and not losing any support, and a reason talk-show hosts wonder what, finally, it would take for Republican senators or representatives to stand up to him. So far, many GOP legislators have expressed “concern” or “discomfort” with Trump’s words and comments. But they’ve stood with him when it mattered, in votes on the floor and in committee, to avoid investigations, subpoenas, or hearings into the matters that “concern” them so.

Republican representatives and senators know there is such a thing as information-security risk. Think of all the hearings they had about Hillary Clinton’s email practices. But they have approved no hearings into Trump’s information practices.

They understand the concept of presidential dignity, and its importance—and the damage done by presidential dishonesty. After all, they impeached Bill Clinton for lying about an affair. Yet they avert their eyes from Trump’s gross violations of these norms.

They understand the importance of procedure and comity. After all, they spent the first year of Barack Obama’s administration negotiating over his health-care bill that nearly all of them ultimately opposed. And now—well, you know the story of their health-care bill, moving toward possible (likely?) enactment with no Senate hearings at all.

They understand, very well, the concept of national security. And yet with Putin…

As a recent assessment of Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska pointed out, he leads all senators in his thoughtful, scholarly “concern” about the norms Donald Trump is breaking—and then lines up and votes with Trump 95 percent of the time. The architects of the checks-and-balance system were famously concerned not simply about balance in policy but also about limits on the grandiose and power-mad. Sasse and his colleagues know that—if not from the Federalist papers, then in their bones. But they have so far refused to act on that knowledge. So we are living through a demonstration of what happens when checks aren’t applied.