Last week, while doing some hiking in Southern California, I stumbled upon some stickers affixed to various signs on the trail:
A portrait of a smiling Donald Trump, with the caption, in all caps: “TRAITOR!”
And then, less than a day later, the headlines were screaming: “Michael Flynn offers to testify in exchange for immunity.”
This is quite significant for obvious reasons. First, immunity is a perk offered by prosecutors in exchange for valuable testimony that they cannot get otherwise, so Michael Flynn, the former Trump national security adviser who was ousted after illicit foreign ties were discovered, must have something good to tell – or, at least, he seems to think he does. And second, immunity is only valuable to people who are guilty – an innocent witness has no obligation to tell anybody anything, really, since they are just free to go; in other words, it doesn’t make sense for Flynn to bargain for immunity unless he’s fairly sure he’s going to be found guilty of something in the first place.
So far, nobody has taken Flynn up on his offer, and the investigation on the Trump campaign’s possibly treasonous connections to Russia continues. But, there’s really only two ways in which this debacle could end: Either Trump is implicated in all of this, or he isn’t. If he is, the consequences are understandably disastrous: We elected a president that turned out to be a foreign agent and a traitor – or, at minimum, was so careless that his actions amounted to treason.
But even if Trump isn’t implicated, his most senior staff already are. Paul Manafort, former campaign chairman, was a Putin agent. Michael Flynn, former national security adviser, was a Turkish agent. Jeff Sessions, current U.S. Attorney General, lied about Russian contacts. The list can go on. And, frankly, the consequences are equally disastrous: We elected a president whose senior staff seems to be – unbeknownst to him – packed with foreign agents and traitors. In this case, Trump might not be as personally shaken, but the damage done to the institutions of American democracy are equally great.
The credibility and integrity of these institutions are under unprecedented threat. Not only are the very loyalties of our chief executive in question, but the damage wrought upon the bureaucratic apparatuses that run the federal government smoothly is also considerable. Rather than act as a professionalized, technocratic moderating force for Trump, his bureaucracy – or, at least, the appointed, high-ranking, non-civil service segment of it – seems to be acting more like an extension of its buffoonish, incompetent commander-in-chief. Thousands of key executive positions remain unfilled not because Trump’s appointments are being blocked, but because he has “no intention” of making the appointments. And where appointments have been made, they seem to be made with a deliberate attempt to undercut the normal functioning of the government: Scott Pruitt, a man who does not believe in climate change, was appointed to head the EPA; Rick Perry, the dumber version of George W. Bush who finished college with a 2.2 GPA in animal husbandry, was put in charge of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, replacing a Nobel Prize-winning physicist.
Of course, we cannot pin all blame on Trump. However the Trump administration ends, it will end with the institutions of American democracy in shambles – more so than ever before. But, as many must secretly admit in defeat – they are already in shambles. Faith in American government and institutions has been falling steadily, and Congress’s approval ratings have not been above 30 percent since 2009. That is not on Trump. In fact, that disillusionment with government is likely one of the factors that put Trump in the White House to begin with; polling reveals that of the 63 percent of the country did not think Trump had the right temperament to be president, 20 percent voted for him anyway. That’s a staggering 27 percent of Trump voters (and nearly 13 percent of the electorate) who knew full well that the man did not have the temperament for the job, but still voted for him. This kind of behavior suggests an overwhelming dissatisfaction with the status quo – in other words, the established, institutional forces of government. For so many voters to vote for a candidate knowing that he is not going to be able to perform competently, there must already be a staggeringly large degree of distrust and, frankly, disdain, for the way American democracy is currently being exercised.
These institutions, and even democracy itself, do not exist in the abstract. Laws, rules, norms – all these things exist not for their own sake, but because they are meant to serve the people. And until our institutions can earn the trust of the American people again by genuinely serving their interests and helping them in their time of need, and by providing them with real solutions in the face of stagnant wages, historically high prices in housing and education and a general atmosphere of malaise and discontent, rather than continue to exist in some self-congratulatory stupor of inactivity, there appears to be little reason why any administration, with or without Trump at its head, could gain legitimacy again.
Contact Terence Zhao at zhaoy ‘at’ stanford.edu.