Donald Trump is a threat to our institutions. There is absolutely no doubt about this. From international norms to domestic precedents, Donald Trump’s presidency has led to the weakening of institutions that have been sacred to the American system. Countless articles in Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, and The Atlantic underline this very fact. Academics from Professor Daniel Drezner of Tufts University and Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute have lobbed scathing critiques of Donald Trump’s reckless attacks on American institutions. In the wake of Trump’s four years in office, public trust in the government has collapsed, international allies have started to retreat from the United States, and the Executive Branch has seen internal bickering as the president attacks his own intelligence agencies.
To truly understand the damage caused by Trump, it is first important to define what the term “institutions” means. According to the Department of Political Science at Duke University, norms are “the formal and informal rules, practices, and regularities at both the domestic and international level that guide and constrain political choices and activities.” This framework is crucial in guiding our understanding. Institutions, therefore, include the underlying organizations running our government. This encompasses the CIA, the DOD, and even the DMV, but they can also include civil society organizations that run on the ground and parallel to government functions. Think the Red Cross and the Salvation Army. However, institutions are not just these types of organizations. The other half of the definition includes the “formal and informal rules,” or what we call norms. These include concepts like electoralism and federalism.
Taken as a whole, it becomes clear how Donald Trump has eroded the institutions that make up the United States and the dangers this phenomenon poses. Perhaps the most salient examples of this erosion come from Trump’s lack of a coherent foreign policy. Trump has consistently attacked multilateral institutions that have been the basis for the unprecedented era of peace seen since the end of World War 2. He has criticized the United Nations, pulled out from the Paris Climate Accords and the World Health Organization, and has enabled autocrats to push against the liberal international order that was upheld by previous administrations. Consequently, this has resulted in a weakening in global stability. War has flared across the world as the United States retreats from institutions and norms it once defended. From the battles between Armenia and Azerbaijan, to skirmishes between India and China, the world has become a more unstable and unpredictable place. In the wake of these developments, leaders across the world have begun to look away from the United States for international leadership.
In the realm of domestic politics, Donald Trump’s most vicious attacks have been on key institutions whose main functions are to keep government accountable. Constant attacks on journalists and scientific experts have eroded public trust in these groups, and as such the very concept of truth comes at risk. Meanwhile, Trump’s desire to “drain the swamp” has seen little in the way of fixing corruption. Instead, low-level bureaucrats and government workers have borne the brunt of Trump’s crusade. Trump has made personal attacks against state governors and career civil servants. Such acts are unprecedented and have ultimately led to a further weakening in the American government’s institutions. These actions have manifested themselves in very consequential ways. With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, Donald Trump’s inaction has resulted in an unfathomable number of needless deaths, with more to follow. Equally alarming is Trump’s noncommittal position in accepting the results of the upcoming presidential elections, a stance that undermines the core concept of electoralism that guides the United States.
However, it is also important to understand that Trump’s attacks on American institutions comes at the back of other institutions that he abused to get to his current position. In fact, much of this stems from historical precedence before Trump’s 2016 campaign. Shortly after the election of President Barack Obama in 2009, Republican leadership found itself facing a crisis. GOP leaders like Reince Preibus analyzed the outcomes of that election and asserted that the Republican Party needed to focus on demographic changes to remain competitive. Some leaders however believed otherwise. Just after President Obama’s inauguration, Mitch McConnell invited key Republicans to a private dinner on January 21. There they discussed a new pattern of politics. Rather than follow Priebus’s ideas of embracing demographics, the Republicans would use a handbook of opposition and minority rule.
By acting as a bloc, Republicans abused American institutional systems to make governance impossible. Over the years, Congress became a polarized system of impotence, with Republicans refusing to cooperate with Democrats on issues like health care or the stimulus package. They actively used the filibuster to prevent substantive discussion, while gerrymandered redistricting has ensured Republican victories in key districts for years to come.
This point is clear. The Republican Party is interested in forgoing norms like popular electoralism and majoritarian rule. Republican leaders like Senator Mike Lee have said this outright. Instead, members of the Republican Party are actively seeking to use broken institutions to cement their rule, while destroying those institutions capable of reversing such actions. This can be best seen in the rush to fill Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Supreme Court seat. Such actions come at the expense of institutional credibility. From the Supreme Court to Congress, the actions of the Republican Party have once more resulted in delegitimization and a sharp erosion in public trust. More and more individuals are showing their anger and frustration at the perceived lack of progress and justice by the federal government. It is little wonder, then, why civilians have searched for other ways to demonstrate their grievances. Anger at the institution of policing and the systemic racism within it has led to the racial justice protests seen all summer.
A Joe Biden presidency is important because it represents a stop in institutional degradation. Biden has made it clear that his goal is to restore America’s image on the international stage by reengaging the country into wider institutions and agreements. On the domestic front, he hopes to bring decency, rationality, and trust back into politics and governance. These are important steps in fixing America’s institutional problems. However, such actions are only part of the equation. A Biden victory also represents a crucial opportunity to reform faulty institutions before they become further cemented in our government. From the filibuster to congressional districting, a Democratic win in 2020 represents the greatest opportunity at restoring majoritarian rule and democracy back into the United States of America. On the other hand, another four years of Trump represents a dangerous turn. The ramifications of this go beyond Trump the man and his administration, and instead tread into the waters of American rule of law. Joe Biden is the only candidate that represents an opportunity at revival and reform for America’s broken institutions.