On why we cannot trust institutional restraints

In previous posts, I’ve argued that Donald Trump cannot be trusted. Now let’s turn to the other straw at which optimists have been grasping, that institutions and professional hands will ensure that the Trump administration will keep to past norms of governance. Let us not be fooled.

There are two significant reasons why, as we plan for what the Trump administration might do, we should not expect either the Republican party’s cooler heads in Congress nor long-term institutional curbs on presidential power to act as brakes on the damage that will ensue.

The first is that the people who should be trustworthy aren’t. The Republican establishment has two wings, one the wealthy tax-cutters and the other social conservatives. We’ll start with Congress’s main water-carrier for those of America’s wealthy who apparently believe that they are overtaxed, the poor dears, namely, the just-reelected Speaker of the House of Representatives, Paul Ryan. Ryan’s main claim to fame, what got him his nomination as the Republicans’ vice-presidential nominee in 2012 and his election to lead the House, has been his supposed budget wonkery. Will he stand in Trump’s way? No, for two reasons. First, as Paul Krugman aptly put it before the election,

As far as anyone can tell, Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House — and the leader of what’s left of the Republican establishment — isn’t racist or authoritarian. He is, however, doing all he can to make a racist authoritarian the most powerful man in the world. Why? Because then he could privatize Medicare and slash taxes on the wealthy.–Paul Krugman.

Ryan has done nothing to stand in Trump’s way. I would argue that even suggesting that he could might be giving Ryan the benefit of the doubt as someone who even has the potential to challenge Trump on basic issues of fact. The reality, as we can see from Ryan’s budgets, is that Ryan doesn’t have much more mastery of the federal budget–his supposed area of wonkery for which conservatives revere him–than does Trump, and the same may be true for other policy areas. In other words, Ryan not only doesn’t have the stomach to resist Trump, he also isn’t a more responsible or honest man; Ryan just plays one on TV.

As for the Christian conservative wing of the Republican party, it, too, has embraced Trump, of course overwhelmingly at the ballot box, but also with no better representative than Trump’s vice-president elect and now transition chairman, Mike Pence. Lest we think he would restrain Trump’s impulses on any issues regarding gender we already know is a foregone conclusion, given his record on Planned Parenthood and LGBT issues. But he’s actually no less reprehensible on race, opining during the campaign, “”we ought to set aside this talk about institutional racism and institutional bias.” Even if he does manage to outmanoeuvre the utterly reprehensible, anti-semitic Steve Bannon, he’s not one to stand in Trump’s way. In fact, he’s the VP exactly because he’s willing to do Trump’s bidding. And the rest of his coalition appears to be no less enabling.

The second main reason for fear is that our institutions are not as strong as we like to think. But, one might object, what about the lawyers, the civil service professionals, who will make sure that the Trump administration does not abuse its power? Our recent record by both parties is not reassuring. Let me offer two names: John Yoo and Harold Koh. John Yoo, some of you may remember, was the man who willingly wrote the memos that the George W. Bush administration used to justify torture (for which Yoo remains unrepentant, by the way). And the Obama administration, while ending the U.S. direct use of torture (at least, as far as we know), has carried on a secret drone war in which it assassinates people in foreign countries, on its own, with zero oversight, no recourse, and under great secrecy. It’s so clandestine that Obama administration attorney Harold Koh got into hot water with other administration officials just for openly defending the program. In sum, our previous president and sitting president have found willing enablers to justify torture and potential murder, respectively. And whatever we think of George W. Bush or Barack Obama, by reasonable accounts they both have great respect for the office of the presidency and the rule of law, unlike everything we’ve seen of Donald Trump.

After these posts outlining some of the threats we face, and why we should not be complacent, you may be wondering–how will we resist? There are many possibilities, but I will be focusing on the same one that got us into this mess: the power of the vote.

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