Trump Shows Contempt For American Institutions
President Donald Trump campaigned on the promise to dismantle American institutions. Since then, he has spearheaded a near-constant barrage of attacks on any and all American institutions that exist to check and balance the power of his presidency. He openly admires and defends strongmen who have almost limitless state power. The checks on presidential power found in the constitution are an obvious annoyance to him; he has utter contempt for such constitutional institutions. He has proven this. He flaunts his contempt.
Trump and his current administration have frequently and ruthlessly targeted the institutions of the free press and federal courts—both of which are enshrined in the constitution. They have condemned any check on their actions and any balance against their power.
During his presidential campaign, Trump threatened to use the power of his presidency to attack newspapers that printed information he did not want public. He spurred the attendees at his campaign rallies to threaten and verbally abuse journalists. He used his power and station to publicly mock a physically disabled reporter. His supporters also frequently referred to journalists as the “lügenpresse”—a German phrase meaning “lying press” once used by the Nazi party.
Trump began to actualize the intent of his campaign message shortly after winning the presidential election. When Twitter banned several prominent Trump supporters in November 2016, the company was then intentionally excluded from a significant tech meeting at Trump Tower hosted by President-elect Trump. Shortly after the punishment, Twitter reinstated the banned accounts—along with adding verification checks. This incident went widely unnoticed, but the implications were paramount. The President-elect of the United States had just used his authority to punish a private media company—a member of the press—for acting within their rights. We live in a time when most Americans receive their news through social media; therefore, large social media companies such as Twitter function essentially as press and are under the same threat of authoritarianism.
This creeping authoritarianism found a home in the White House after Trump’s inauguration. In several press conferences since becoming president, Trump has refused to answer questions from publications that have printed information of which he disapproved. The same disdain for media dissent has encroached on the White House press corps.
In February, a scandal erupted regarding allegations that Trump’s Chief of Staff was pressuring the FBI to publicly defend the president from claims of collusion between Russian intelligence and Trump’s presidential campaign. While members of the press attempted to investigate the allegations, the White House organized a private, off-camera press briefing that excluded many reputable outlets whose published work had displeased the president—The New York Times, CNN, BBC, and Politico were among the excluded. This questionable move came shortly after the White House's plan to relocate the press corps away from the West Wing was leaked, potentially decreasing press access and transparency. The plans were later scrapped, but the administration's antagonism towards the press only intensified. In an interview with the New York Times shortly after Inauguration day, Chief Advisor to the President Steve Bannon insisted that journalists should “keep their mouth shut.”
However, Trump’s assault on dissent is not restrained to only members of the press. When Chuck Jones—president of United Steelworkers 1999—accused Trump of lying about the details of a Carrier Corporation deal with the Indiana state government, the president-elect responded by using his power and influence to publicly attack Jones. In response, defenders of Mr. Trump then harassed and threatened the union president.
Federal judge positions, established by the constitution, are also not immune to the president's derision. Since having implied during the presidential campaign that Hispanic ethnicity prevented a judge from properly practicing law, Trump has only escalated his war against the Judicial Branch.
After Trump signed an executive order establishing a travel ban, then Acting Attorney General Sally Yates judged that the order could not be defended in federal court. She was swiftly fired and publicly labeled as a betrayer by the White House. Although presidents have the authority to fire their attorney general, the White House’s statement that Yates had “betrayed” her country was utterly unprecedented and terrifying. It was the language of authoritarianism.
However, Sally Yates’s reading of the law was found to be accurate. A federal judge blocked the president's travel ban shortly after its singing. The irate president then insulted the position of federal judge by publicly referring to the public servant as a “so-called” judge. In fact, he even condemned the American courts system itself for checking his power. Trump also announced that the judge who ruled against the executive order will be held responsible for any future terror attacks on American soil. The message was clear: judges must perform their constitutional duties in a way that politically benefits the president or they will be publicly attacked by the president himself.
Trump has no shame in discrediting institutions established by the constitution—whether in the name of national security or just old-fashioned vanity. He revels in his intimidation of judges and other public servants appointed to check his presidential power. When Senator John McCain, chair of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, criticized a raid in Yemen that left one Navy SEAL dead, the president responded with enraged contempt. Trump suggested that McCain stop publicly questioning military actions ordered by the president. He also accused McCain of endangering national security. Of course as chair of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, it is McCain's duty to question and check the president's use of the armed forces. However, the Trump administration does not tolerate criticism. when senior White House policy advisor Stephen Miller was interviewed live on Face the Nation, he asserted that Mr. Trump’s power “will not be questioned.”
There is no invisible hand of protection over the institutions that preserve this nation and its constitution. There is no white knight riding in for the cause of good governance. There is only us. Like currency, our institutions only function insofar as we value them. Checks and balances will not protect us from a president who won election campaigning on the promise to dismantle those same checks and balances ensured by our institutions.
These institutions—a free press, branches of government, separation of powers, checks and balances, and rule of law—exist to maintain civil society and liberal democracy. They exist to protect citizens from tyranny and authoritarianism. Unfortunately, those who strive to conserve these institutions and values enshrined in the constitution do not currently have an ally in the White House.
Brandon Clarkson is the Editor in Chief of Sojourn Review. You can follow him on Twitter here.