Tumult has overcome the beleaguered Trump administration. The end of his term comes with more than 120,000 deaths from COVID-19, social upheaval triggered by police brutality, unemployment levels not seen since the Depression, and an increasingly incendiary political landscape.
It is too easy to focus on the particulars of high-profile policy disasters in anticipating what a new administration would do, and it may be deceptively tempting to suppose that a calming presence in the White House will itself salvage national political culture. Less attention-grabbing than the political and cultural flashpoints that roil Twitter on any given day has been the steady erosion of the norms and institutional arrangements that have defined our democracy. Knowledge of how such events have unfolded across other countries provides a roadmap for the scale of reforms that will be required to get the United States back on a democratic track.
The past three years in the United States have witnessed a concentration of discretionary authority in the hands of the president, the dismantling of the federal government’s institutional resources, and a degeneration of policy and budgeting into a short-term horizon focusing exclusively on immediate political gain — and often on croneyist profit. We did not need to be inside the room with John Bolton to see how de-institutionalized governance and discretionary power yield a “caudillo” or despotic style that would reduce democracy to little more than a show, with the claim that elections are periodically held.
Across five key dimensions, the result is a loss of capacity and direction that future administrations will struggle to restore. The Trump administration’s assault on state competence, in favor of freewheeling dominance by individual executive discretion, threatens the United States with an erosion of democracy that echoes the populist cascade in Hungary, India, Turkey, Brazil, the Philippines — unfortunately, the list goes on.
1) Unilateral Command
President Donald Trump’s caudillo style echoes that of modern-day Latin American strongman presidents. Taken from the cowboy image of the leader of a cavalry, the Spanish term refers to personalist command, without party or political institutions, dependent on the individual authority of the leader both with the populace and the military. The key to this system of government, whether in the hands of Trump or any of his fellow wannabe strongmen across the globe, is the penchant for unilateral action. There is no patience for the niceties of process, as even a conservative Supreme Court recognized with regard to the Census and immigration. The simple expectation is that governance is the exercise of power at the whim of the elected boss. As political scientist Nadia Urbinati writes, populists in power “treat procedures and political cultures as a matter of property and possession.”
The pandemic has offered an opening for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to mobilize India against Muslims, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to rail against the threat from outsiders and consolidate formal control, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro to petition for military intervention, and so on. Trump has made a sequence of “kingly” pronouncements, some within his formal powers and some violating separation of powers and federalism. Drawing from a nativist playbook, he has trumpeted restrictions on travel and immigration, without consulting foreign partners. He has overruled guidelines put forward by his CDC, and announced a unilateral withdrawal from the WHO. In a nakedly political abuse of discretion, he ordered Planned Parenthood affiliates to return Paycheck Protection Program loans. Without legal authority, he commanded states to allow churches to reopen, and threatened (hollowly) to “override the governors” if they balked.
Notable in this American context is that, rhetoric aside, many “kingly” pronouncements have had limited practical impact. Trump is drawn to the pomp of high office, but not so much to the circumstance. Unlike the serious threats of unilateral power in the hands of foreign strongmen, the most striking legacy of Trump is not the actual exercise of executive power but the systematic erosion of state capacity. Although he made much of his power under the Defense Production Act, he hesitated to bring its force to bear. His claims to absolute authority regarding reopening of the economy met swift legal backlash, as he surely should have expected. But then, that wasn’t the point.
Unilateral command has served more as performance than as leadership strategy. Trump makes bombastic claims that the president “calls the shots [in terms of reopening the national economy]…When somebody’s the president of the United States, the authority is total.” But after the news cycle passes, there is usually no follow up. His aides know this too. Cabinet members and senior officials often delay or foot drag to avoid implementing the president’s most outrageous dictates, knowing his attention will wane (see Bob Woodward’s book, Bolton’s book, and much investigative reporting.) Trump may also assert the power to override governors at will, but the federal government has abandoned national leadership in the pandemic. Unlike many foreign despots on the rise, Trump’s recurring pattern is the assertion of ultimate authority, but no responsibility and little command of substance.
His fight against mechanisms of accountability has been one of his only true and successful battlegrounds (immigration is another in which the administration has enjoyed some success), from claiming sweeping executive immunity from congressional oversight to firing inspectors general and replacing them with loyalists. He aims to protect governance by whim, preserve impunity, and abandon efficacy. The three-year record is clear.
2) Constricted Command
During his campaign, Trump promised to “drain the swamp,” expunging the malign “deep state.” Trump’s presidency has witnessed an exodus of experts — some fired, others resigning in protest. The pattern of hostility to government capabilities, well-chronicled by Michael Lewis in the Fifth Risk, continues unabated. As the administration progressed, the breach has been filled by cronies and, strikingly, by blood connections, the most primitive form of loyalty. Subordinates tied to him by blood or marriage play an outsized role. To the frustration of others in the administration, they enjoy unparalleled access, and even as others are pushed out, the family remains. John Bolton’s exchange with ABC News’ Martha Raddatz provides striking testimony to this phenomenon:
RADDATZ: Next to the president, who held the most power in the White House?
BOLTON: It varied from time to time. At different points, different people would have influence. But I think the sustained answer to that question over time is Jared Kushner.
There is nothing unprecedented in presidents depending on a preexisting inner circle, even on family. First ladies have often had important policy domains. John Kennedy appointed his brother attorney general. But the narrowing of circles of trust in Trump’s orbit takes place outside any of the formal structures of governance, as best exemplified by the most unusual portfolios of Ivanka Trump and her husband, Kushner, on matters ranging from pandemic responses to pacifying the Middle East.
Populists govern in a swirl of cronyism and clientelism, using public funds for private power. Whether President Vladimir Putin’s oligarchs in Russia, former South African President Jacob Zuma’s “tenderpreneurs,” Orban’s beneficiaries of public contracts, or any number of other arrangements, the unifying theme is the use of the expenditures in the government budget to prop up those with personal connections to the regime. While most such leaders lean toward transactional loyalty, the failure of the Trump administration to pursue consistent policies on trade and infrastructure limits the durability of the relationships it seems to be trying to build. The result is an increasing reliance on the much simpler relationships that place little pressure on deliverance or competence: family.
3) The Message from on High
From Roosevelt’s fireside chats on, presidents have capitalized on the new channels provided by the technologies of communication. But for Trump, Twitter is not simply a means of communication. It offers him the ability to deliver messages without official process. He touts accomplishments and boosts allies; demeans anyone who provokes his ire; and spreads rumors, falsehoods, and conspiracy theories. He even uses Twitter to announce policies, often without establishing legality or political support.
“Caudillo” politics requires the leader to speak to “the people” directly without legislative or administrative channels, sidelining the easily denounced institutional media and the customary filters of office. For Trump, Twitter is a technological upgrade. What Hugo Chavez pioneered in Venezuela with his thousands of hours of nightly “Alo Comandante” television gabfests, Trump imported as a constant cycle of tweets directed to millions of supporters. When Trump used the pandemic daily briefings for hours of unmediated self-promotion, Chavez’s ghost smiled.
Chavez and Trump also share the propensity for self-absorption that often descends into absurdity. Gaffes are inevitable, but all the more so when all wisdom putatively springs from a compromised leader. Institutional capabilities are cast aside in favor of boasts, unfounded claims, exaggerations, and dissembling, all put to the crude partisan test of “Are you with me or against me.”
Needless to say, the ensuing absence of credibility from the perspective of anyone not deep in the camp — including other nations and the U.S. citizenry — has insidious consequences when lives depend on the veracity of the president’s words. Trump consistently exaggerates government and private sector action. He makes implausible projections about vaccines and lies about testing, and he promotes drugs such as hydroxychloroquine of highly questionable efficacy against the disease. No claim is off-limits, so long as it serves his or his supporters’ interests, or gratifies his ego.
4) Budget Busting
Fiscal discipline requires long-term vision. Populism feeds on immediate gain and lives by the dictates of the next election cycle. While every president wants the head of the Federal Reserve to embrace short-term stimulus measures as an election approaches, populists the world over break the bank. Trump — as a self-professed “king of debt” during his earlier life as a businessman — was already comfortable borrowing, and unabashed about defaulting. This now is his government’s credo.
When a stimulus was clearly needed to confront the pandemic’s impacts, Trump rushed to take credit, even hijacking the stimulus payout as a propaganda coup, forcing the IRS to print his name on checks mailed around the country. But the raid on the fisc began well before COVID-19. Trump and other elected Republicans have been eagerly capitalizing on opportunities for deficit spending to advantage wealthy allies. Congressional Republicans and administration negotiators wove in provisions for specific industries and interest groups. Instead of policy, there were one-off payments (the “deals”) dispensed by the president as a new dole to the politically connected or to politically salient constituencies, such as farmers.
This is selective deficit spending for political credit and private profit, with little regard for the well-being of citizens beyond a select circle. Some of this is not new to the American political landscape, nor limited to which party is in power. What’s different here is how these spoils are used in combination with the aggregation and exercise of autocratic powers.
5) Freedom from Proof
The modern administrative state is built around technical competence and procedural transparency. All presidents complain that bureaucracy impedes policy initiative, and indeed that attitude is baked into the rules of governance. But the current populists defy bureaucracy not simply to push through specific policy initiatives, but as part of a wholesale war against modern notions of science and proof. We’ve seen this in other countries too.
Unfortunately, the current pandemic furnishes an environment in which incompetence, antipathy to technical expertise, and magical thinking converge — with disastrous results. A suite of tendencies that coalesced in opposition to climate science is now having a second life in the rejection of even the most basic notions of public health. For Bolsonaro, Brazilian vigor would repel any false claims of a rapacious virus; even as Brazil finds itself as one of the countries most devastated by the pandemic, he countenances no public health measures. For Orban and Modi, the virus allows them to whip up the faithful against foreigners and Muslims. So too for Trump: the virus serves him best as a xenophobic rallying point against China, immigrants, Mexicans, and others.
Both Bolsonaro and Trump promoted hydroxychloroquine, and this in turn became a kind of elixir of faith, with Trump even claiming to have taken the drug himself. The string of bizarre claims and actions have included preventing an infection-ridden ship from docking so as to keep infection numbers low, claiming that disinfectants or strong lights could be applied internally to wipe out the virus, and his remark recently that he had told his officials to slow down testing because the results increase the numbers of reported cases and make him look bad.
Meanwhile, of course, this is the greatest public health calamity in a century. And in the United States, the denial belt, enamored of Trump and his preposterous claims, is now the site of the greatest spike in new infections. Government by proclamation is no substitute for coherent public health policy.
And now …
Partisans tend to exaggerate the significance of any one election. For generations, political control has flipped back and forth between the two major parties. Americans have survived scandals and wars, social upheavals, dramatic transformations. But considered in retrospect and with the benefit of hindsight, the forms of governance during these calamities have all been recognizable. The way that government functions has been largely maintained. While progress has been agonizingly slow at times, the bent of the political universe has not fundamentally been called into question.
That is no longer true in the past three years. This change in the very nature of political practice far exceeds any easily identified policy demarcations. We have begun to see the unwinding of modern America. The effects will not simply evaporate when Trump leaves office. Lasting damage has been done to public trust in democratic institutions, the status of news media, the respect for science and proof, and more. Putting our political culture and democratic system back together will require more than mere policy repair.