Donald Trump’s presidency has done more damage to America’s political institutions than most people realize. I explain how in my new book, Institutions Under Siege: Donald Trump’s Attack on the Deep State.
Of course, some of that damage is obvious to anyone with a passing knowledge of current political events in the United States. Consider Trump’s unfounded claim—the Big Lie—that he won the 2020 presidential election. Most Republicans became obsessed with the Big Lie and used it to great effect. Not only did it raise questions about the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s presidency and the American electoral system, but it triggered the January 6 riot at the Capitol that sought to overturn his election. It also cast a dark shadow over the 2022 midterm elections. For example, retired U.S. Army brigadier general Don Bolduc, a Republican running for the U.S. Senate in New Hampshire, embraced the Big Lie during the primaries and refused to recant it during the general election. In fact, hundreds of Republicans running for national and state offices during the midterms supported the Big Lie to win Trump’s endorsement and curry favor with voters. It’s no exaggeration to say that the Republican Party has become the party of Trump, engulfed in conspiracy theories like this, disinformation, and often inflammatory rhetoric that millions of Americans believe.
Often overlooked, however, is the rest of the damage that Trump caused. Throughout his presidency he laid siege to what he called the deep state—some of the most important institutions of America’s political system. The consequences are dire.
For instance, Trump abandoned normal protocols for selecting nominees to the federal judiciary, relying heavily on recommendations from the Federalist Society, a right-wing organization of lawyers, law school professors and legal activists trying to tip the ideological balance of the judiciary in a radically conservative direction. Trump’s three appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court created a conservative supermajority that will likely last for decades and that has already overthrown long-standing legal precedents, most notably Roe v. Wade, thereby jeopardizing a woman’s right to an abortion in many states. But Trump’s ability to make conservative appointments to the lower federal courts was equally damaging. On average he appointed more federal judges per year than any president since Jimmy Carter, over forty years ago. Notably, by the time Trump left office he had appointed over 25 percent of all the appellate court judges in the country—a particularly worrisome number because the appellate courts often have the last word on a case. Very few of their decisions ever reach the Supreme Court. Research shows that the extreme conservatism of Trump’s appointees polarized the federal courts and created unprecedented conflict on the Supreme Court, which according to recent polling contributed to a rapid decline in the public’s trust in the Court—trust that is now at an all-time low with only 25 percent of those surveyed having either a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the Court. Trump’s meddling in the Department of Justice had similar effect. Pew Research found in 2019 that the DOJ’s public favorability rating was worse than almost all the other government agencies listed in their survey.
Trump also launched an assault on the federal bureaucracy gutting civil service and other appointments, often at the senior leadership level. In so doing he created generational vacuums of expertise and experience that will take years to correct in the Department of State, the Environmental Protection Agency and several other departments and agencies. His attack on the bureaucracy often targeted people engaged in policy research and advising that Trump frowned upon like those in the Department of the Interior studying the causes and devastating effects of climate change. Independent studies have shown that his disregard for expert and scientific advice in public health and epidemiology exacerbated the Covid-19 crisis in the United States leading to many thousands of needless hospitalizations and deaths.
Trump’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act slashed taxes especially for wealthy individuals and corporations striking a blow to the federal government’s revenue stream and fiscal stability. His tax cuts also failed to provide a long-term boost to the investment, economic expansion, and job growth that he promised during his first campaign for the presidency. Coupled with his inability to convince Congress to trim budgets, the tax cuts increased budget deficits and pushed government debt to record heights. Two years after Trump signed these tax cuts into law, the public debt had grown by $2 trillion and was the fifth largest as a percentage of GDP of all the advanced capitalist countries. Some believe that this threatens to weaken the U.S. dollar, the backbone of American economic hegemony worldwide.
Trump managed to do all this for two reasons. One was his unique leadership style. When he couldn’t cut deals with politicians and bureaucrats to abide by his wishes, he often bullied them into submission through intimidation, public humiliation, and threats of firing. He used incendiary rhetoric about what he believed to be the evils of immigration, race, political correctness, and the ineptitude of those disagreeing with him to gin up support from his political base. Much of this was driven by Trump’s narcissistic belief in his own infallibility as well as his own political self-interest. But his ability to inflict so much damage was also a matter of luck. He happened to enjoy several tipping points that had developed over the years creating opportunities for him to pursue radical institutional change. Millions of Americans had become fed up with the federal government, stagnant wages, deindustrialization, growing inequality, and a fading American Dream. Trump capitalized on these trends to garner political support and push the G.O.P. and conservative politics to extremes that would have made Ronald Reagan cringe. Whether Joe Biden or someone else can fix the damage that Trump caused is an open question. On the one hand, as I write this the morning after the 2022 midterm elections, the Republicans seem likely to win back the House vowing to stymie the rest of Biden’s legislative agenda. If they also win the Senate, they will probably block many of his judicial and administrative appointments too. On the other hand, many of the most extreme Republican candidates running for office—those embracing the Big Lie and receiving Trump’s endorsement—lost. The big red wave that was supposed to sweep dozens of Republicans into national office has turned out to be a trickle. So, many voters are apparently fed up with Trump-style politicians. That’s good news because unless the Republican Party can extricate itself from Trump’s grip, America’s political institutions will continue to suffer. Ours is a two-party system. With only one reasonable party interested in serious and respectful fact-based discussions of the issues it’s hard to see how things will improve. It takes two to tango. Unfortunately, Trump and his minions are terrible dance partners.