Donald Trump

A Trump Damage Assessment

By Jack Goldsmith
Tuesday, September 12, 2017, 7:36 AM

I have a long essay in The Atlantic entitled Will Donald Trump Destroy the Presidency?  It begins:

Donald Trump is testing the institution of the presidency unlike any of his 43 predecessors. We have never had a president so ill-informed about the nature of his office, so openly mendacious, so self-destructive, or so brazen in his abusive attacks on the courts, the press, Congress (including members of his own party), and even senior officials within his own administration. Trump is a Frankenstein’s monster of past presidents’ worst attributes: Andrew Jackson’s rage; Millard Fillmore’s bigotry; James Buchanan’s incompetence and spite; Theodore Roosevelt’s self-aggrandizement; Richard Nixon’s paranoia, insecurity, and indifference to law; and Bill Clinton’s lack of self-control and reflexive dishonesty.

“Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm,” James Madison wrote in one of the Federalist Papers during the debates over the ratification of the Constitution. He was right, but he never could have imagined Donald Trump.

At this point in the singular Trump presidency, we can begin to assess its impact on American democracy. The news thus far is not all bad. The Constitution’s checks and balances have largely stopped Trump from breaking the law. And while he has hurt his own administration, his successors likely won’t repeat his self-destructive antics. The prognosis for the rest of our democratic culture is grimmer, however. Trump’s bizarre behavior has coarsened politics and induced harmful norm-breaking by the institutions he has attacked. These changes will be harder to undo.

Trump, in short, is wielding a Soprano touch on American institutions. “I’m fucking King Midas in reverse here,” Tony Soprano once told his therapist. “Everything I touch turns to shit.”

As this introduction suggests, I am pretty pessimistic about Trump’s impact.  Checks and balances have worked reasonably well to keep Trump from violating the law.  But he has shattered norms like no other president.  I predict that most of these norms will snap back—Trump’s norm-breaking has been so obviously self-defeating that future presidents won't repeat most of his antics.  But of course, the presidency will be different if the country is different. I worry about Trump’s impact on other institutions —the press, courts, the military, and the media.  These institutions have broken norms in response to Trump’s norm-breaking.  For reasons I explain, I fear that some of these norm breaches won’t be repairable.  And the impact on our democratic culture more generally is dire, I think:    

Citizens’ trust in American institutions has been in decline for a while. That’s one reason Donald Trump was elected. His assault on those institutions, and the defiant reactions to his assault, will further diminish that trust and make it yet harder to resolve social and political disputes. The breakdown in institutions mirrors the breakdown in social cohesion among citizens that was also a major cause of Trumpism, and that Trumpism has churned further. This is perhaps the worst news of all for our democracy. As Cass Sunstein lamented in his book #Republic, “Members of a democratic public will not do well if they are unable to appreciate the views of their fellow citizens, if they believe ‘fake news,’ or if they see one another as enemies or adversaries in some kind of war.”

Have a nice day.

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