What’s Broken—and What’s Still Working—in American Politics


I tried my best, through the first half of this year, to avoid getting caught up in the political emergencies of each day, so as to write about some longer-term developments that I know are more encouraging than current national-level trauma, and that I believe are at least as significant. My wife Deb and I physically absented ourselves from the capital, as described here, which provided some mental and emotional distance as well. Some.

But we’re now back, all in—physically present in D.C. (for now) and emotionally and mentally in the fray. This is a quick report on how the national struggle looks on re-immersion.

One aspect of mid-2017 public life seems unchanged—or rather, unsurprising. Another is more heartening than I might have expected six months ago. But a third is quite depressing, and raises the question of how well our political system can function if even one of its divided-power, checks-and-balances elements is severely impaired. To take them in order:

Unsurprising: This would be Donald Trump himself. The man we have seen in office is a foreseeable extension of the person we saw during his year and a half on the campaign trail. Through that period I did a running chronicle, the Trump Time Capsules, of what the candidate was indicating about characteristics that matter in a president. These include: his level of knowledge and sophistication on policy, his temperamental balance, his process of decision-making, his scrupulousness about truth, and his standards in allies, advisors, confidantes, and enemies.

The fact that Donald Trump wound up as president is a surprise in historical terms—and to me, since I asserted in mid-2015 that no one so inexperienced could be elected. Of course I was wrong, and stopped making any predictions about him after that. But nothing Trump has done as president should qualify as surprising. For any step he’s taken in these past six months—the tweets, the public feuds, the lurches back and forth in policy, the norm-breaking and information-gaffes—there’s a link back to some moment during the campaign. What the Atlantic said in its editorial urging a vote against him was based on what Trump had shown as a candidate but has borne out through his time in office.

We believe in American democracy, in which individuals from various parties of different ideological stripes can advance their ideas and compete for the affection of voters. But Trump is not a man of ideas. He is a demagogue, a xenophobe, a sexist, a know-nothing, and a liar. He is spectacularly unfit for office, and voters—the statesmen and thinkers of the ballot box—should act in defense of American democracy and elect his opponent.

Melania Trump’s success in avoiding further controversies, after her plagiarized-speech embarrassment nearly one year ago, is to her credit. Tiffany Trump has had the best PR run of the adult children, in that she’s mainly stayed out of the news. The mild surprise about the rest of them—Jared and Ivanka, Eric, and of course now Donald Jr.—is how unaware they appear to have been about the difference between running a family business and representing the president of the United States.

For Ivanka, this showed up (inter alia) in her unselfconsciously taking her father’s seat at the G20 meeting, a role that in other administrations would have fallen to the vice president, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, or some other constitutional officer. For Jared, it showed in the assumption that without any previous experience he could run half a dozen major portfolios, any one of which had been as much as James Baker, Leon Panetta, George Shultz, William Webster, or other bureaucratic masters and veterans had handled. It also showed in his assuming that the security-clearance form that asked for recent contact with representatives of foreign governments didn’t need to be taken seriously, or wouldn’t be checked. For Eric, it showed in the assumption that of course business and government interests would intersect. (Compare Trump family business with this 1988 letter from George H.W. Bush, as he ran for president, to his son, George W., about avoiding even the appearance of conflict of interest.) For Donald Jr. — well, you know.

But maybe, as with their father, such missteps are more unfortunate than unexpected. None of them had been part of anything like this before.

Heartening: More parts of the formal and informal U.S. constitutional system are still functioning more normally than might have been expected six months ago. Members of the judiciary are applying standards that predate this administration, and administration officials have complained but complied. A special counsel is building his staff and pursuing his work, with every indication that if Donald Trump were to fire him, some Republicans (along with all Democrats) would object and resist. From most Cabinet departments except the Pentagon, reports radiate about empty offices and downcast morale (as with Julia Ioffe’s memorable portrayal of a hollowed-out State Department). But it was conceivable before the inauguration that parts of the government might simply stop functioning, with no one empowered to make day-by-day operating decisions. Things are different now than they used to be, but the main functions go on.

As for the non-governmental parts of civic structure, the press has—overall—worked harder and more successfully to pick its way through this new terrain than most people might have foreseen, or feared. Of course, the press is infuriating and inconsistent, as it has always been. (See Paul Starr’s major book on the travails of the U.S. media from a dozen years ago, or my own broadside a decade before that.) Name your news outlet, and you can think of a dozen things it does wrong—with the exception, maybe, of the current Washington Post, which is in a new golden age. And even the Post has made a mistake or two. But compared with what you might have expected six months ago, reporters and editors have succumbed less either to “normalization” of historically unusual behavior, or boredom or distraction from matters of consequence, than they might have.

And the signs of engagement by Americans who, unlike reporters or civil servants aren’t paid to concern themselves with public affairs, are unmistakable: demonstrations and protests around the country to resist the proposed health-care law or to protect immigrants and refugees. Mayors and governors vowing to pursue climate-policy goals, even if the national government does not. Organized movements and individual decisions attracting new candidates for the hard work of running for office, at levels from Congress down to state and city elections, and including larger numbers of women and veterans of our recent wars.

It would be ridiculous to claim any of these happenings as objectively a “good” sign for America—for instance, that Air Traffic Control is still functioning or that the National Institutes of Health is still giving research grants. And they coincide with what, by my values, are very dark developments, starting with the break-up of families by newly empowered immigration agents. But by the standard of how things looked six months ago, this is a more functional America than many might have foreseen.

Discouraging: The major weakness these six months have revealed in our governing system is almost too obvious to mention, but I’ll name it anyway. It is the refusal, so far, by any significant Republican figure in Congress to apply to Donald Trump the standards its members know the country depends on for long-term survival of its government. A system of checks and balances relies on each of its component branches resisting overreach by the others. The judiciary has done its part; Paul Ryan’s House and Mitch McConnell’s Senate have not. We’re seeing the difference that can make.

If Trump’s White House were dictating a legislative agenda to their party-allies in Congress, he would merely be replicating what strong presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan tried to do. But Trump has barely any legislative proposals. What he has dictated instead is standards—a toleration for his own disregard of norms—and has reduced the set of standards that Republicans apply down to one: loyalty. There’s a reason Donald Trump could joke about shooting someone on Fifth Avenue and not losing any support, and a reason talk-show hosts wonder what, finally, it would take for Republican senators or representatives to stand up to him. So far, many GOP legislators have expressed “concern” or “discomfort” with Trump’s words and comments. But they’ve stood with him when it mattered, in votes on the floor and in committee, to avoid investigations, subpoenas, or hearings into the matters that “concern” them so.

Republican representatives and senators know there is such a thing as information-security risk. Think of all the hearings they had about Hillary Clinton’s email practices. But they have approved no hearings into Trump’s information practices.

They understand the concept of presidential dignity, and its importance—and the damage done by presidential dishonesty. After all, they impeached Bill Clinton for lying about an affair. Yet they avert their eyes from Trump’s gross violations of these norms.

They understand the importance of procedure and comity. After all, they spent the first year of Barack Obama’s administration negotiating over his health-care bill that nearly all of them ultimately opposed. And now—well, you know the story of their health-care bill, moving toward possible (likely?) enactment with no Senate hearings at all.

They understand, very well, the concept of national security. And yet with Putin…

As a recent assessment of Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska pointed out, he leads all senators in his thoughtful, scholarly “concern” about the norms Donald Trump is breaking—and then lines up and votes with Trump 95 percent of the time. The architects of the checks-and-balance system were famously concerned not simply about balance in policy but also about limits on the grandiose and power-mad. Sasse and his colleagues know that—if not from the Federalist papers, then in their bones. But they have so far refused to act on that knowledge. So we are living through a demonstration of what happens when checks aren’t applied.

How American Presidents Used to Speak Overseas


Is America an idea? Or is it a specific “people” or ethnic group? On the diverging answers to that question turn some of the biggest disputes in U.S. history. Our current president began his trip to Europe with a speech in Poland that minimized the role of ideals in American identity, and maximized the importance of what he called “civilization” but which boils down to ties of ethnicity and blood.

From Donald Trump this cannot be a great surprise, given the support he has courted and the American groups he has derogated during his time on the public stage. But for a president of the United States it still counts as a notable, even shocking departure. A president’s role when traveling has, until now, been to speak for the American idea.

* * *

Let me illustrate with another visiting president’s remarks in Poland, more than a generation ago. What Stephen Miller is, I once was—sort of. Miller is a 30-something White House staffer from Southern California who apparently drafts many of Donald Trump’s speeches, including this one. Back in 1977, I was a 20-something White House staffer from Southern California writing speeches for Jimmy Carter, including the one he gave on arrival at the airport in Warsaw, capital of then still-Communist Poland, just after Christmas that year.

The late-night arrival in Poland was the first stop on a multi-country tour that took Carter on to Iran, India, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and several other places besides. Back at the time, Carter’s few minutes of remarks at the airport made news mainly because of a silly-in-retrospect gaffe-flap about whether the State Department’s interpreter had embarrassingly misrendered some of Carter’s words. When Carter said that he had just “left” America on his journey, did the interpreter convert that into Carter “abandoning” his country? When he said that he wanted to understand the Polish public’s “desires for the future,” did that become understanding their carnal lusts? You can read more about the ins and outs here. And interpretation questions aside, it was anything but an august moment: airport remarks rather than a formal parliamentary presentation, in the stinging snow and freezing winds on the tarmac, under portable lights at nearly midnight Warsaw time.

But what strikes me on rereading Carter’s comments is how plain and simple they were on the question of what America is. Before the trip, there was nonstop negotiation, and occasional tension, among the contending foreign policy figures in the administration about the tone Carter should strike when kicking off the tour in Poland. It was a delicate time, in many ways. A new president was in his first year; crucial arms-control talks were underway with the aging Leonid Brezhnev’s aging (but still nuclear-armed) Soviet Union; anti-Communist reform pressures were building within Poland and elsewhere in what was still the “Iron Curtain” bloc; a lot was at stake.

But despite their differences on matters large and small, Carter’s Polish-born national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and his first Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, agreed that the tone in Poland, and throughout, should emphasize the ideas and the political values that the United States hoped would extend around the world. For example: Any president, going anywhere, will find a way to talk about historic, cultural, and ethnic connections with whatever place he finds himself in. Carter began, as all presidents do, by touching that base.

I am proud to begin this journey in Poland—friend of the United States since the time our Nation was founded. Poland is the ancestral home of more than six million Americans, partner in a common effort against war and deprivation.

Relations are changing between North and South, between East and West. But the ties between Poland and the United States are ancient and strong.

Then Carter started down the list of Polish military heroes in the war for U.S. independence—Casimir Pulaski, Thaddeus Kosciuszko—but he used them as the pivot from “we are connected by history” to “we are connected by an ideal.” Thus (with emphasis added, for the pivot):

For his military skill and bravery, Thaddeus Kosciuszko won the respect of our first President, George Washington, during wartime. And for his commitment to freedom and justice, he won the admiration of our third President, Thomas Jefferson, in time of peace.

These brave men fought alongside Americans in the era which produced three of the great documents in the struggle for human rights. One was the Declaration of Independence from America. The second was the Declaration of the Rights of Man from France. And the third was the Polish Constitution of May 3, 1791.

Then he was on to a brief mention of the other ways in which Poland and America stood for ideas larger than their own immediate welfare, for universal values and hopes. E.g., “Our shared experience in battle has also taught us the paramount importance of preventing war, which has brought devastation to Poland twice in this century. At the end of World War I, a great American, Herbert Hoover, came to Poland to help you ease the suffering of war and to observe the reestablishment of an independent Poland.”

* * *

It was a tiny speech, a perfunctory speech, a certain-to-be-forgotten moment if not for the translation issues. But I mention it because its tone was exactly consistent with more famous moments of American presidents discussing the American idea beyond or borders.

When John F. Kennedy gave his celebrated remarks in Berlin a few months before his death, he presented both the United States and free West Berlin as proud illustrations of a larger idea: “Two thousand years ago, the proudest boast was ‘civis Romanus sum.’ Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is ‘Ich bin ein Berliner.’” (You can read the text of the speech, and see a video of its still-remarkable five-minute entirety, here.)

Nearly 25 years later, when Ronald Reagan went to the Berlin Wall, he gave a speech that became famous for its rhetorical plea, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” But the surrounding tone was like Kennedy’s. E.g.:

We come to Berlin, we American presidents, because it's our duty to speak, in this place, of freedom. ...

Behind me stands a wall that encircles the free sectors of this city, part of a vast system of barriers that divides the entire continent of Europe. … Yet it is here in Berlin where the wall emerges most clearly; here, cutting across your city, where the news photo and the television screen have imprinted this brutal division of a continent upon the mind of the world.

Standing before the Brandenburg Gate, every man is a German, separated from his fellow men. Every man is a Berliner, forced to look upon a scar.

This is how American presidents talk. It is how they represent the nation—its idea, and its ideal. This is how they have talked, until now.

* * *

How was Trump’s speech, which you can read here, different?

The minor problem was the routine neuralgia of Trump’s “formal” (from a script) rhetoric. These included the almost willfully pedestrian language (has no one there bothered to read even the great conservative orators, from Churchill to Reagan?). And the off-hand misstatements of fact, as when Trump discussed NATO obligations as if they were club-dues on which members were in arrears. (“My administration has demanded that all members of NATO finally meet their full and fair financial obligation. As a result of this insistence, billions of dollars more have begun to pour into NATO. In fact, people are shocked.”) And the unique-to-Trump phenomenon of his ad-libbed “Hey, that’s interesting!” commentary when he comes across information in a prepared text that is apparently new to him. This was most breathtaking in today’s speech when he read a line about Poland fighting simultaneously against Hitler’s Nazi army and Stalin’s Soviet army in 1939, and then said: “That's trouble. That's tough.”

But the major departure in Trump’s speech was its seeming indifference to the American idea. At least when speaking to the world, American presidents have emphasized an expanded “us.” All men are created equal. Every man is a German. Ich bin ein Berliner. Our realities in America have always been flawed, but our idea is in principle limitless. Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

Trump gave grace-note nods to goals of liberty and free expression. Mainly, though, he spoke not about an expanded us but instead about us and them. He spoke repeatedly about our “heritage,” our “blood,” our “civilization,” our “ancestors” and “families,” our “will” and “way of life.” Every one of these of course has perfectly noble connotations. But combined and in practice, they amount to the way the Japanese nationalists of the early 20th century onward spoke, about the purity of “we Japanese” and the need to stick together as a tribe. They were the way Mussolini spoke, glorifying the Roman heritage—but again in a tribal sense, to elevate 20th century Italians as a group, rather than in John F. Kennedy’s allusion to a system of rules that could include outsiders as civis romanus as well. They are the way French nationalists supporting Marine LePen speak now, and Nigel Farage’s pro-Brexit forces in the U.K., and “alt-right” activists in the United States, and of course the Breitbart empire under presidential counselor Steve Bannon. They rest on basic distinctions between us and them as peoples—that is, as tribes—rather than as the contending ideas and systems that presidents from our first to our 44th had emphasized.

* * *

This tone in Trump’s speech is clearer if you watch it rather than read it, but here is a sample passage, with highlights on a few distinctive notes:

We must work together to confront forces, whether they come from inside or out, from the South or the East, that threaten over time to undermine these values and to erase the bonds of culture, faith and tradition that make us who we are. (Applause.)

If left unchecked, these forces will undermine our courage, sap our spirit, and weaken our will to defend ourselves and our societies.
But just as our adversaries and enemies of the past learned here in Poland, we know that these forces, too, are doomed to fail if we want them to fail. And we do, indeed, want them to fail. (Applause.)

They are doomed not only because our alliance is strong, our countries are resilient, and our power is unmatched. Through all of that, you have to say everything is true. Our adversaries, however, are doomed because we will never forget who we are. And if we don't forget who are, we just can't be beaten. Americans will never forget. The nations of Europe will never forget. We are the fastest and the greatest community. There is nothing like our community of nations. The world has never known anything like our community of nations.

We write symphonies. We pursue innovation. We celebrate our ancient heroes, embrace our timeless traditions and customs, and always seek to explore and discover brand-new frontiers.

We reward brilliance. We strive for excellence, and cherish inspiring works of art that honor God. We treasure the rule of law and protect the right to free speech and free expression. (Applause.)

In context, the final sentence did not come across with the gusto of all the rest.

* * *

Has Donald Trump ever heard of Leni Riefenstahl? Would he recognize an allusion to Triumph of the Will? It’s possible—when Errol Morris interviewed him 15 years ago, Trump seemed familiar with details of Citizen Kane, even though he had an idiosyncratic view of the film’s meaning.

But there is no doubt that Steve Bannon has heard of Reifenstahl, and I’d imagine Steve Miller too. And they cannot fail to have foreseen how it would sound, in a Europe that also remembers connotations of national “will,” to have an American president say this, with emphasis as delivered:

We have to remember that our defense is not just a commitment of money, it is a commitment of will. Because as the Polish experience reminds us, the defense of the West ultimately rests not only on means but also on the will of its people to prevail and be successful and get what you have to have.

The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive. Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders? Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?

And, the closing words of the speech:

Just as Poland could not be broken, I declare today for the world to hear that the West will never, ever be broken. Our values will prevail. Our people will thrive. And our civilization will triumph.

American presidents have spoken of ideas and ideals. This one speaks about will. He represents our country as just another tribe. I hope the country proves him wrong.