The conventional wisdom is that this high turnover rate in the administration is the product of a chaotic mind — the president’s. But this viewpoint misses something more profound taking place: The White House’s internal chaos is a reflection of our democracy’s resilience.
Engaged civil society, a robust news media and a largely unified opposition party — all elements of a strong democracy — are creating a pressure cooker at the White House. This pressure is an important reason for the personnel crisis in the administration.
Of course, the turmoil can also be attributed to the fact that Trump is an incompetent manager who provokes infighting within his team, places ill-chosen figures in prominent positions and has no problem firing them to protect himself. But the crises occur only when Trump and his team are placed under substantial pressure. And so far, that pressure has come from outside the White House.
First, civil society is kicking in. Since Trump’s inauguration, the administration has felt the weight of popular resistance. From the women’s march, to the airport protests, to the remarkable constituent pressure at town halls and at legislators’ offices over health care, and now the flurry of protests following white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, this year is proving to be a high-water mark for grass-roots activism. This has put the administration on the defensive.
Then there is the role of a free press — and particularly investigative journalism. Just a couple of years ago, analysts were wondering whether even the largest print outlets, such as the New York Times, could survive the digital era. Now, the demand for these services is growing, as reporters regularly break major stories on the administration’s coverups on Russia, health care, immigration and more. Good reporting is cornering the White House.
Finally, the opposition party is united in the legislature, effectively blocking the president’s legislative agenda. While much attention focused on the “No” votes by three Republican senators — Susan Collins (Maine), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and John McCain (Ariz.) — on repealing Obamacare, their votes mattered only because all 48 Democratic senators — including many with difficult upcoming elections in 2018 — stood united against repeal. This unity was far from a given in late 2016, when analysts wondered whether Democrats would be able to stick together. But, with strong encouragement from grass-roots activists, they have indeed stuck together. If anything, it is the president’s party — now divided among Trump supporters, libertarians, evangelicals and moderates — that is having trouble holding itself together.
In weaker democracies, the rise of strongman rule with a legislative majority would have overwhelmed the institutions. Once Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Vladimir Putin in Russia, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Viktor Orban in Hungary achieved control over their legislatures, they had no trouble taking over other political institutions. Democratic backsliding ensued.
By contrast, so far in the United States, it is the administration that has floundered. This is a sign of the resilience of our democratic institutions and values.
There’s no reason to think the pressure on the administration will abate. Grass-roots organizers have tasted early victory — particularly in blocking the repeal of Obamacare — and are gearing up for persistent mobilization. This will help keep Democrats in Congress united in opposition. Coupled with more embarrassing exposés and the unfolding Russia scandal, civil society mobilization is likely to further frustrate the president.
And as Trump continues to be thwarted, expect him to maintain his attacks on rivals and even allies such as Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). This in turn should lead to more staff turnover. The character of new White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, who many Republicans hope will impose discipline, is beside the point. The nature of the administration will continue to be determined not by Kelly, but by the man recklessly tweeting at North Korea from his country club — and the popular backlash he provokes.
This turnover can place the president in a trap. Presidents often change staff to survive pressure, but too many changes cause chaos and policy incoherence. As in other democracies, the instability in the Trump team will likely undermine Trump’s chances of enacting his agenda, while further emboldening his opposition and civil society.
Just as Trump is placing our democratic institutions and civil society under a stress test, the recent firings demonstrate that the reverse is also true: Our institutions and civil society are placing his administration under a stress test as well. What’s unclear is which side will break first. For now, it’s the White House that is showing the first signs of cracking.