President Trump has built a “repressive kleptocracy” that threatens the survival of major democratic institutions, a panel of journalists and scholars told a Washington think tank’s forum on the administration on Wednesday.
The Brookings Institution’s session on Threats to Democracy in the Trump Era began with an audience poll on whether Trump is upholding his inaugural oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution.
In a room of about 200 people, only three raised their hands.
David Frum, senior editor of The Atlantic and author of the new book "Trumpocracy," said the majority is justified. He called the administration a “repressive kleptocracy,” led by an executive whose complete disregard for civil virtue and norms remain unchecked by a “complicit” Congress.
While past Democratic presidents like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, and Republicans like George W. Bush, sometimes faced tough challenges from members of their respective parties in Congress, Frum argued that the inflated tribalism on Capitol Hill has made this same-party opposition a thing of the past. The current GOP Congress seems to be blindly loyal to Trump, a horrific new reality that has led to significant and unchecked strain on many of our most basic government institutions, Frum said.
Elaine Kamarck, senior fellow at Brookings, was more restrained, arguing that many of the government’s institutions are strong and will bounce back from the Trump trauma. She predicted the Department of Justice and FBI, for instance, will survive this administration and emerge mostly unscathed, despite public attacks by the president.
Other institutions, however, are already dead. According to Frum, the House Intelligence Committee, a once-respected group established after the intelligence scandals of the 1970’s, has all but ensured its own destruction with the recent “Nunes memo.” Abusing sensitive information and using it for cheap, political reasons not only represents a massive violation of norms, it ensures a complete breakdown of trust between the committee and the intelligence community, he added.
It is unlikely that intelligence officials will be sharing this kind of info with the committee in the near future, Frum said.
The panelists disagreed on the severity of America’s institutional degradation. Karmack rated the strain on US institutions as only a “two or three” on a 10-point scale. Frum, meanwhile, compared the breakdown of US leadership to the near-totalitarian state of Hungary.
Benjamin Wittes, senior fellow at Brookings and third speaker on the panel, spoke of the severe strain on US institutions as a product of previously unthinkable actions taken by Trump. Among other things, Trump has demanded prosecution of his political opponents, repeatedly attacked the press, insisted on personal loyalty from investigators who are supposed to be insulated from such pressures, and even publicly encouraged a hostile foreign government to illegally interfere with our elections.
These actions undercut some of the most basic tenets of our democracy. They point toward a future in which demagogues can mount catastrophic challenges to our democratic norms -- with minimal resistance from Congress and much of the public.
So what can be done? The panel encouraged mobilizing active, traditional political organizations to get out the vote and defending institutions that are under attack.
Despite the bleak message, I hold on to hope for our republic. “Trumpocracy” certainly seems a misstep for our democracy. Yet I see signs of a strong, organized, and orderly reaction from both parties on the horizon. That could be our saving grace.
Success is not inevitable, however. And it will not come by itself. Frum noted that there is a misguided and “serene American self confidence that everything will have a happy ending.” The sooner we realize the fallacy in such thinking, the sooner our democracy can be healed.
Office: Common Cause National
Tags: Executive Ethics