Donald Trump Is a Stress Test for Democracy and We Are Failing
Donald Trump began the 115th day of his presidency embroiled in yet another scandal of incredible scope and consequence, the second such occurrence in as many weeks. On Monday, the Washington Post broke incredible news: During a closed-door meeting with two Russian officials—Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak—the president revealed highly classified information regarding operations against the Islamic State. According to the Post, “the information the president relayed had been provided by a U.S. partner through an intelligence-sharing arrangement considered so sensitive that details have been withheld from allies and tightly restricted even within the U.S. government.” The New York Times reported on Tuesday that this ally was Israel, actualizing fears from Israeli officials, who previously worried that a President Trump would leak intelligence to Russia, which might then find its way to Iran.
As Trump, his staff, and his allies have asserted in the wake of this revelation, it’s within his rights as president to unilaterally declassify intelligence. There’s no question the president has the right to share this information, just as he had the right to fire now-former FBI director James Comey. He even has the right to tweet details of major operations or unmask covert operatives. In that regard, when the president does it, it isn’t illegal. But this isn’t a question of legality or authority; it’s a question of norms and protocol, of temperament and discretion, of actions that may constitute an abnegation of duty that could equate to high crimes and misdemeanors.
On that score, Trump’s loose lips are like his impulsive action against Comey: evidence that, on the most fundamental level, he is not fit for high office. Indeed, he’s never been fit for high office. And as we debate the means to hold him accountable for this latest action, it’s worth tackling a different question: How can we prevent another Trump in the future?
By all accounts, President Trump didn’t reveal this information as an official action with the Russian government. He did so as a casual boast, a way to win affirmation and praise, like a child eager to please a teacher. “In his meeting with Lavrov, Trump seemed to be boasting about his inside knowledge of the looming threat,” reports the Post. “ ‘I get great intel. I have people brief me on great intel every day,’ the president said, according to an official with knowledge of the exchange.”
It’s not shocking that Donald Trump—a reality television star and poster boy for crude excess—is manifestly unsuited for an office that even at its least challenging, requires unusual patience and ability. That much was apparent throughout the presidential contest, from the moment he announced his campaign to his eventual triumph in the general election. What is shocking is how little the Republican Party seems interested in reining this in. Despite the weight of Trump’s transgression—a dangerous contempt for discretion, on the heels of an authoritarian push against the independence of federal law enforcement—GOP lawmakers are largely silent, frustrated with the “drama“ but unwilling to challenge the president’s grossly abusive behavior.
Here, it’s worth a point about the office of the presidency itself. We talk now of the “imperial presidency” and the dangers within, but American fear of presidential power—that wariness toward and suspicion of the chief executive—far predates the national security state and its vast bureaucracy. In his essays defending the office of the president, Alexander Hamilton frequently battled with the idea that the constitutional convention was crafting some vehicle for “Asiatic despotism.” In Federalist 67, for instance, he assured readers that the authority of the president—a “magistrate,” in his words—are little different in concept—”in few instances greater, in some instances less”—from those of the governor of New York.
But Hamilton’s defense of the presidency wasn’t just about the formal powers of the office and their necessity. He was also confident in the means used to select a president. “The process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications,” he wrote in Federalist 68. The presidential election was, itself, a safeguard: The judgment of the electors—and by extension the judgment of the people who chose them—would ensure a president who exercised the powers of his office with virtue and restraint.
Our modern system for choosing presidents is extra-constitutional, neither proscribed nor precluded, but it relies on that same basic idea that the election process—and all that it entails—will ensure the selection of someone with the “requisite qualifications.”
With Trump, it failed. And that failure—like the present failure to hold the president accountable for his actions—belongs primarily to the GOP, which offered Trump as a choice to the nation at large. At every turn during the presidential primary, Republican lawmakers and elites sought to accommodate or pacify Trump, giving him the legitimacy he craved. Outlets like Fox News boosted Trump as much as possible, and his competitors saw him as a wild card to use, not a legitimate threat for the nomination. After he captured the prize, those leaders and lawmakers acquiesced and endorsed, sending a key signal to Republican voters; that Trump was mainstream, that Trump was safe, that Trump could be president. By the time he reached the general election, Trump was just another nominee; a major-party candidate who, by the law of averages, had a chance to win the White House. The same dysfunction and myopia that led Republicans to stick by a nominee who all but confessed sexual assault has led them to a similar place with a president who divulges sensitive information on a whim.
All of this implies an answer to our question. You prevent a second Trump—the election of an unstable demagogue to the most powerful office in the world—by fixing the Republican Party, its processes, its procedures, and its culture. But that’s far easier said than done. The GOP’s embrace of Donald Trump is the natural endpoint of a movement politics that holds ideology as inviolable dogma, that conflates the interests of the nation with that of the party, and that treats opponents as illegitimate. It’s a kind of politics that tolerates profound damage to our institutions and our security to pursue narrow ideological goals like tax cuts; that puts the world in danger rather than break partisan unity.
I wrote last week that there’s little Trump could do—outside of rejecting tax cuts or nominating a pro-choice judge—that would split him from the party he represents. Even with Vice President Mike Pence as a replacement, a turn against Trump would cripple the Republican agenda and potentially the party itself. The Republican Party is committed to achieving both power and its ideological goals at all costs, and this commitment is a stress test for our democracy. While we already know our institutions can’t prevent a Trump from taking office, this is a test of resilience: Can they stop the worst and repair the damage? As we witness another week of scandal—another attack on our norms and standards—it’s hard to say that we will pass that test.
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