The story of the recent years is of institutions that were unable to constrain the presidency.
Americans are living now through the worst pandemic in a century and the severest economic crisis since the Great Depression. At every turn, President Donald Donald Trump has made the crises worse. Had somebody else been president in December 2019—Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush—fewer Americans would have met untimely deaths; fewer Americans would now be unemployed; fewer businesses would be heading toward bankruptcy.
On the eve of the 2016 election, a Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist opined in The Washington Post: “If Trump wins, he’ll be held more or less in check by the House and Senate, because that’s the way our system of government is set up. Not even Republicans are eager to follow Trump’s lead.”
I cite that column—published under the headline “Calm Down. We’ll Be Fine No Matter Who Wins”—not to single it out, but precisely because it was so un-singular. The keepers of the institutions could imagine Donald Trump testing the system. They could not imagine the system failing the test.
And yet fail it did. The story of the Trump years is a story of institutions that failed. The Department of Justice failed. The inspectors general failed. Congressional oversight failed. The national-security establishment failed. The courts failed. Trump did things that no previous American president would ever have dared, that no previous president sank low enough even to imagine. Sometimes he was stopped, more often not. But whether stopped or not in any particular case, he never ceased pressing ahead to do even worse the next time.
The only check remaining is that of the 2020 ballot box. Not Trump alone, but the great political party behind him, is working to ensure that election is as unfree and unfair as possible. In that effort, they have mobilized the active or tacit support of millions of Americans.
Trump is a swindler, but the Trumpocalypse of 2020 represents something a lot bigger and a lot worse than a swindle. In the fall of 2019, a nonpartisan research organization studied the distinctive attitudes of Republicans who watched Fox News as their primary source of information. Among that group, 55 percent said there was virtually nothing President Trump could do that would change their minds about supporting him. Fox News and the Facebook feed have become for many Americans friends more intimate and trusted than family or neighbors. The validation of their prejudices by television and Facebook is a validation of themselves.
And so, for the sake of flag and faith, millions of decent conservative Americans countenanced scandals, wrongs, disloyalty, and crime. Trump’s followers live in an isolated knowledge community that has developed its own situational ethics. They wanted to lock up Hillary Clinton for sending and receiving emails on a personal server, not caring even slightly when Ivanka Trump did the exact same thing or when Trump outright blabbed to the Russian foreign minister secrets much more vital than anything Clinton could possibly have risked. They plunged into the QAnon fantasy of a wise and good Trump poised to crush a global ring of child molesters, in order to avoid the reality of a malignant Trump who by his own admission had preyed upon teenage beauty-pageant contestants.
And if Trump’s supporters are not interested in holding him to account, most of the institutions of American government haven’t proved capable of doing so either. The Trump years demonstrated the very great extent to which presidential cooperation with the law is voluntary, especially if he retains a loyal attorney general, and a sufficient blocking vote in Congress.
It’s illegal for federal employees to overspend on travel to benefit themselves or their colleagues. In 2012, a senior executive at the General Services Administration was sentenced to three months in prison, three months under house arrest, and three years’ parole for taking personal side jaunts and overspending on lavish retreats for his staff.
It is illegal for government employees to use their positions to engage in certain political activities. They are especially forbidden to engage directly in election campaigns while on the government payroll. The presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway appeared to violate this law—the Hatch Act—so persistently and flagrantly that she triggered an internal investigation. In June 2019, the investigation reported that indeed she had broken the law repeatedly and intentionally.
If Conway had been a career government employee, she would have been dismissed from her position immediately. By courtesy, however, the enforcement of the Hatch Act upon political appointees is left to the president directly. The investigation, therefore, concluded with a recommendation to the president, rather than a direct order, that Conway be subject to “appropriate disciplinary action”: in other words, that she be fired.
Trump disregarded the recommendation. Conway mocked the finding to reporters. As one journalist read the recommendation to her, she replied: “Blah, blah, blah. If you’re trying to silence me through the Hatch Act, it’s not going to work. Let me know when the jail sentence starts.”