Checks and Balances Won’t Save Us from Trump
Our institutions have already proved weak.
THE ALREADY-FORGOTTEN-BUT-NOT-YET-GONE Kevin McCarthy shared some thoughts on threats to our democracy with Bob Costa on Face the Nation. After affirming that yes, he is endorsing Trump for re-election, and yes, he would love to accept a post in his cabinet, he brushed aside concerns about Trump’s authoritarian or even fascist tendencies. “I don’t see that.” Pressed to justify Trump’s nonstop vows to exact “retribution” on his opponents, McCarthy offered that “What President Trump needs to do in this campaign—it needs to be about rebuilding, restoring, renewing America. It can’t be about revenge.” How nice, but that’s 180 degrees divergent from what Trump is doing.
Costa persisted: “He’s not backing away from his calls for retribution.” McCarthy was unperturbed. “Yeah, but remember, you have a check-and-balance system.”
McCarthy isn’t the only one to place exaggerated confidence in institutions to save us from Trump’s lawlessness. Even the supposedly serious conservatives on the Wall Street Journal editorial board assure readers that “We think American institutions are strong enough to contain whatever designs Mr. Trump has to abuse presidential power.” The real danger, as the Journal editorialists see it, is that “his chaos theory of governance would result in a second term that failed to deliver on his promises and set up the left for huge gains in 2026 and 2028.” So the Journal isn’t at all concerned that Trump would follow through on plans to instruct the Justice Department to prosecute his opponents; pardon all of the January 6th rioters, fake electors, and others who helped him attempt to steal the 2020 election; withdraw from NATO; impose a 10 percent tariff on all imports; investigate NBC for treason; and shoot shoplifters on sight.
This complacency is dangerous. The truth is that institutions don’t uphold themselves. They require constant reinforcement and reaffirmation. They depend upon individuals who are committed to something other than their own narrow self-interest. Our institutions were not strong before Trump took center stage in American life, and they are even weaker now.
The best possible check on the excesses of any political figure is a strong party that exerts pressure to conform to certain standards. After long patience with his lies during Watergate, a delegation of leading Republican officeholders trooped to the White House on August 7, 1974 to inform Richard Nixon that he had lost the support of the GOP. He could choose to endure impeachment or resign. He resigned on August 9.
When old institutions fail, what choice do we have but to make new ones? Help us make The Bulwark the kind of pro-democracy institution this country needs.
Though partisan feelings run hot these days, the actual political parties have very little power. They pop off rhetorical fireworks and incite hatred of the other party, but they have lost influence over the direction of their own members. They don’t even have influence over what the party stands for. In 2020, the Republican party—which had produced a platform every four years despite civil war, depression, and two world wars—produced no platform, merely a one-sentence declaration that the party supported “the President’s America First agenda.”
The Democratic party, also a shadow of its former self (though not as weak as the GOP), could not assemble a delegation of elders—say, in 2022—to approach Joe Biden and suggest that he step aside and groom a younger successor. The party doesn’t have that kind of influence.
If the Republican party were not such a shell, it would have shut down Trump’s dangerous lies about the stolen election on November 3, 2020. Instead, leading office holders “humored” him, or worse, reinforced his lies. They knew that to mislead voters about the integrity of the election process was playing with fire—that it could result in instability or violence. But the party failed miserably. Even after the deadly assault on the Capitol on January 6th, 147 Republican representatives and senators voted not to certify Biden’s election. The Republican party as an institution was not a check on an attempted coup.
It was only the conscience and courage of a few individuals that kept the United States from plunging into a constitutional crisis. Mike Pence, Rusty Bowers, Brad Raffensperger, Jeff Rosen, Richard Donoghue, and a few others found it within themselves to put country before party. Later, Liz Cheney, Adam Kinzinger, Mitt Romney, and the handful of Republicans who voted to impeach and convict Trump behaved admirably. But they did so in opposition to the institution of the Republican party, not as agents of it.
A few people with the backbone to do the right thing do not make an institution. They don’t comprise a reliable “check and balance”—especially when the institution has chosen not to reward but to punish them. Not only have most of those who did the right thing lost their seats, many have had to expend small fortunes for personal security.
The institution of the Republican party cannot be relied upon to check Trump in a second term. What would elected Republicans do if he instructed his officials to violate people’s constitutional rights and promised in advance to pardon them? Let’s be realistic. Most Republicans would justify it. The Wall Street Journal would probably tsk tsk and say the real danger was that Democrats might get the same idea. And if they didn’t, what could they do to stop him? Impeachment is a dead letter.
What about the institution of the press? There are probably more excellent journalists working today than any time in history, but the press as an institution is in crisis. Reliable outlets compete for clicks with disinformation sites and malicious liars. Steve Bannon’s “flood-the-zone-with-s—” tactic has worked like a charm. The owner of the website that had served as America’s town hall now retweets antisemitic slurs, invites Alex Jones back with open arms, and chats amiably with conspiracy theorist Vivek Ramaswamy. The most-watched cable network had to pay out $787 million in damages to Dominion Voting Systems for knowingly and cynically libeling them. The press is not a check on Trump.
What about the churches? You would think that if any institution were loyal to something higher than partisanship, it would be the churches. But as Peter Wehner, Tim Alberta, David French, and Russell Moore have shown in painful detail, white Evangelicals have shown themselves to be among the most susceptible to the lure of a would-be authoritarian. The churches are not a check on Trump.
What about the military? For the most part, the military has held steady, affirming that it has no role in domestic politics. But there are a disturbing number of former officers like Michael Flynn and others who are fully paid-up members of the Trump cult, and it should disturb the sleep of any patriot that all of the living former secretaries of defense felt the need to sign a letter in 2020 affirming that the military has no proper role in determining the outcome of America’s elections. Nor is it healthy to have to worry that the military will second guess orders from the commander-in-chief—something that only surfaces when the voters choose someone unhinged for the role. The military might be a check on a clearly illegal order by Trump—say, to obliterate Mexico City in an unprovoked attack—but would not be a check on legal orders, like withdrawing from NATO, calling up troops under the Insurrection Act, or abandoning South Korea. The military is only a partial check on Trump.
What about the courts? The judiciary has been a stalwart check on Trump. From the first rebuffs of the “Muslim ban” in January 2017 to the 60 spurious suits charging election fraud in 2020, the courts have upheld the law and brushed back Trump’s attempts at dictatorial power. Will that hold? Things will be different if Trump is re-elected. He will have learned the importance of putting a toady in the attorney general’s office. And he will spend the bulk of the next 11 months discrediting the entire judicial system in order to vitiate the impact of any guilty verdict. He, along with his GOP enablers, was able to convince tens of millions of Americans that the election was stolen. How many, at the end of this process, will believe that the judicial system is corrupt and rigged?
Trump already abused the pardon power in his first term to excuse war criminals and his pet supporters. He is practiced at this. So what is to stop him from pardoning himself for any and all depredations of the Constitution, which he has already declared should be “terminated”? What can the courts do against the plenary pardon power? The courts can try, but they are an insufficient check on Trump.
Our institutions are weak. The checks and balances, like the impeachment power, have proved toothless. There is only one check on autocracy that remains—the electorate—and with every poll, doubts about that one accumulate.