Democracy Dies in Darkness

Outlook | Perspective

Trump’s first year: A damage assessment

January 19, 2018 at 2:54 PM

ONE-TIME USE ONLY illustration for O-TRUMPIVERSARY0121 (Matthieu Bourel for The Washington Post/Matthieu Bourel for The Washington Post)

It is now a year into the Trump presidency, and, shutdown crisis aside, the business of government goes on more or less as usual. Most of the planet remains at peace, and the administration's handful of accomplishments — including a tax bill, the rollback of some regulations and a conservative Supreme Court justice — are pretty standard fare for a Republican White House.

Were President Trump's critics, then, overwrought in their predictions of doom? PJ Media's Roger Simon has declared that Never Trumpers (like me) should apologize for their apostasy and get into the trenches to fight the advancing leftist hordes. New York Times columnist David Brooks, although still reluctant in his defense of Trump, suggests that were it not for the president's bizarre tweets, "we'd see a White House that is briskly pursuing its goals."

This is nonsense. Trump's presidency has done daily damage not only to the Republican Party and the conservative movement but, more important, to our constitutional system of government. The president is eroding the unwritten norms that serve as the civic girders beneath our political and legal infrastructure. And his foreign policy, insofar as he has one, is diminishing our global standing and jeopardizing our security.

It is sometimes difficult, in the wind tunnel of noise created by Trump's most hysterical critics, to distinguish what is merely appalling from what is genuinely dangerous. Not everything the administration has done is wrong or disastrous — it has even gotten a few things right, such as the strike last year against Syria. But it is clear that Trump has already left so much destruction in his wake that it may be hard to put the pieces together again after he's gone.

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President Trump's first year on the job garnered him historically low approval ratings. From high-profile firings to contentious remarks, here's a look back at the ups and downs of his first year. (Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

Related: [American democracy is on a break. Welcome to ‘Trumpocracy’]

The superficial appearance of normalcy in the rest of the government is not a sign of a robust democracy, but of confusion and a lack of direction. Because Trump does not have any kind of vision or even a basic set of policy preferences, and because he has no tolerance for the boring details of governing (including staffing important political appointments), the bureaucracy has remained mostly on auto­pilot in the past year. This situation will not last, and it should be no consolation to realize that potentially awful outcomes have been averted not by statecraft and prudent administration, but by inertia and incompetence.

Imagine, for example, if Michael Flynn had somehow escaped his tangle of Russia problems, and he and Steve Bannon, aided by Fox News television personality K.T. McFarland, had spent a year running National Security Council meetings. These people left the White House not, as we might have hoped, because our system of oversight and constitutional government worked, but because of their own astonishing missteps. Trump supporters who point out the increasingly functional National Security Council conveniently forget that it was cobbled together when the previous council — the one Trump actually wanted — imploded.

Yes, John Kelly, as White House chief of staff, and H.R. McMaster, as national security adviser, and Jim Mattis at the Defense Department — all active or retired generals — have managed to impose some order. But this, too, has come at a cost. It is one of the greatest corrosions of our system under Trump that conservatives and liberals alike have expressed relief that the generals are running things. This is a deeply anti-republican sentiment, a squandering of a precious heritage of civilian control of the military.

Meanwhile, Trump has made good on the prediction that he would lead the conservative movement to disgrace, and he has gravely — perhaps even mortally — wounded the Republican Party. His endorsement of an accused child molester in Alabama's Senate race coaxed a final humiliation of evangelical and "family values" conservatives that was a long time coming — and for many of us who are more moderate conservatives, our only regret is that it didn't happen sooner. Yet the Trump effect has rippled further, attaching a repulsive hypocrisy to anything involving the word "conservative." People who once insisted on religious beliefs and a sterling character as paramount in their evaluation of a president now wave away alleged payoffs to porn stars; fiscal conservatives now blithely applaud the addition of $1 trillion in debt; foreign policy hawks now mumble quietly as the president draws moral equivalences between the United States and Russia.

The consequent damage Trump is doing to the Republican Party should worry liberals as well as conservatives. The point of political parties is to aggregate interests and soften the edges of the extremes in order to find common cause to make policy. Without viable parties, alienated and discouraged citizens withdraw from politics, and only the most motivated and aggrieved voters show up for the primaries and conventions. This is already happening in the GOP. Whatever principled origins there were to the tea party movement, for example, it fell prey to the most angry and extreme elements within it, resulting in the emergence of some truly repellent congressional candidates (think Indiana's Richard Mourdock, who said, "even when life begins in the horrible situation of rape, that is something that God intended to happen") and later contributing to the rise of Trump.

Democrats should not celebrate these trends: If the GOP ceases to be a sensible opposition party, if it can no longer provide the constraining influence of a governing alternative, the Democratic Party will be overtaken by extremists as well. And if both parties become captured by their fringes, America will hurl itself between far right and far left, like a dysfunctional parliament instead of a system of divided powers that has been a model of stability for nearly 2 1 / 2 centuries. A boat can be tossed from side to side only so many times before it is swamped.

Related: [Republican self-destruction is fun to watch, but bad for us all]

Even more troubling than the effect on any one party, however, is the damage Trump is doing to our civic life. Here, I do not mean the president's constant vulgarity, although it is shocking how accustomed we have allowed ourselves to become to behavior that would have appalled any decent American even a decade or so ago. No, the more significant concern is that Trump has convinced millions of Americans that governing the United States is not a serious business that needs to be undertaken by serious men and women.

Every president, whatever his virtues, has had his terrible flaws: from Nixon's brooding darkness to Carter's dour naivete, from Reagan's sunny cluelessness to Obama's lightweight self-regard, from Bush 41's disconnected privilege to his son's smirky frat-boy mien. But all of them understood the gravity of the job, and in turn, they made us feel it, too. We made fun of them, we criticized them, we immortalized them as "Saturday Night Live" caricatures. But they were presidents, and we knew the burden that rested on their shoulders, including responsibility for the safety of not just Americans but billions of other human lives.

Trump, however, has turned the presidency into a spectacle. Important matters of public policy disappear the moment he drops a curse word at a meeting, like a naughty child at a birthday party, or gets ahold of a cellphone and tweets something outrageous, like a vandal on the loose with a can of spray paint.

Some of Trump's supporters defend these reduced expectations of the Oval Office as a welcome diminution of the imperial presidency. And yet Trump is the most imperial president in modern history, at least if measured by his status as a celebrity or a god-emperor among his supporters. To his base, Trump is a conquering hero "triggering the libs," a middle finger to the globalists and the intellectuals, a source of anxiety to those effete Europeans who cheered Barack Obama in Berlin.

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The Washington Post Editorial Board offers a speech to President Trump that's more, shall we say, presidential than angry tweets. (Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

He is everything, in fact, except our chief magistrate and the head of the executive branch of our government. Rather than feeling bound by the Constitution "to take care that the laws are faithfully executed," Trump sits atop a structure of laws and norms he attacks daily. Courts? How dare they impede his executive ukazes. The Justice Department, the FBI, the CIA? Disasters. All part of the "deep state." And the First Amendment? An annoyance that needs to be cleared up by rewriting libel laws to protect those in power from a free press.

Related: [Americans have lost faith in institutions. That’s not because of Trump.]

Journalist Salena Zito's formula for Trump — that his opponents take him literally but not seriously, and that his supporters take him seriously but not literally — may have been true during the campaign, but a year later, there is no evidence that anyone, at home or abroad, takes Trump seriously.

And yet, this is a paradox: If Trump is so unserious, so inconsequential, how can his damage be so lasting?

The answer is simple. Wrecking things is easier than repairing them. Spending capital is easier than accumulating it. Chaos is easy; order is hard. It takes architects years to learn how to build a house, while ignorant scavengers can strip it bare and destroy it in hours.

Trump has deprived the presidency of its majesty, its gravity and its ability to inspire. In doing so, he has distilled the role of executive power to its elemental minimum as an almost purely destructive force. When Trump talks policy, he is ignored. But he is still the most powerful man in the world, so there is no avoiding him when he seems bent on creating havoc.

Trump's tweets and off-the-cuff remarks have blown up a summit with Britain, deepened a standoff with North Korea and precipitated a coming constitutional crisis within our government. It's all hilarious reality show stuff that doesn't matter — right up until it does.

This tendency is especially dangerous in foreign affairs, where Trump is laying down a legacy that will bedevil future presidents and endanger Americans for years to come. Trump taunts North Korea, and the North Koreans test more missiles. He pulls America out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and China steps in. He withdraws from the Paris climate accords — a purely symbolic act if ever there was one — and instead of the United States getting a "better deal," France and the other Europeans decide we should be ignored.

If Trump's warnings to our enemies mean very little, they mean nothing at all when it comes to reassuring nervous allies. He talks to NATO and manages to ignore Article 5. He backtracks and promises that America is a reliable ally — and then adds that we're as reliable as the last protection payment we've received. He's turning America from the guarantor of a system of international peace and economic cooperation into the spoiler nation, a role once played by Russia and China, and a reputation not easily shed once it sticks.

Perhaps most dispiriting, Trump has shattered the notion, at home and abroad, that no matter how partisan our politics, no matter how crazy our elections, every two to four years the result is a group of relatively stable adults who know what they're doing.

All of this means the next president will have to rebuild the office almost from the ground up. Americans will have to learn once again to take the presidency seriously. Congress will have to return to the assumption that the president understands — and cares about — policy. International alliances will have to be healed. Foreign enemies will have to be reminded that the word of the commander in chief matters. An entire branch of government will have to be reestablished at home and abroad.

Will Americans and their next president be up to the task? Three more years of this, and any such restoration of the republic may be out of reach.

Twitter: @RadioFreeTom

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Tom Nichols is a professor at the Naval War College and the Harvard Extension School. He is the author of “The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters.” The views expressed here are his own.

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