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The Dangerous Lesson Future Presidents Could Draw from Trump

The president has turned the federal government into an arm of his campaign — without paying much of a political price.

September 16, 2020

The Justice Department revealed last week that it’s trying to replace President Trump’s personal lawyers in his legal defense against a defamation lawsuit stemming from Trump’s denial that he raped a woman in the 1990s. The highly unusual move is the latest example of how Trump, with a major hand from Attorney General Bill Barr, has undermined the traditional independence of the department, turning it from a largely apolitical law enforcement agency to a taxpayer-funded law firm representing the president’s political and personal interests.

This being the Trump era, the story had to fight for attention amid other revelations that in past decades might have helped derail a presidency: Trump reportedly calling our war dead “losers,” Trump telling Bob Woodward he deliberately played down the coronavirus threat, and so on.

But it shouldn’t get lost. Because under Trump, not only the Justice Department but much of the federal government has been politicized, on a level that goes far beyond the periodic abuses we’d seen under past presidents. Trump has pressured the Food and Drug Administration to overlook safety concerns and approve a quick coronavirus vaccine and other treatments he can tout to voters ahead of the election. Top Trump appointees at the Department of Homeland Security downplayed, for political reasons, the threats of white supremacist violence and Russian election interference, in the latter case because it “made the president look bad,” according to a whistleblower. The administration tried to rig the census to undercount minorities to benefit the GOP. And of course, Trump infamously withheld military aid to try to compel a foreign country into investigating a political rival, an act for which he was impeached.

And that’s just the tops of the waves. By getting key parts of the U.S. government to subvert their missions and act in his interest, not the public’s, Trump has gravely threatened a crucial pillar of our democracy.

That’s not exactly breaking news at this point. But here’s what’s perhaps most troubling about it: though these moves have generated plenty of pushback from Democrats, good-government groups, and the media, Trump doesn’t seem to have paid as much of a price for them as his predecessors would have — and that’s a lesson future presidents will absorb.

Impeachment over the Ukraine business ended up pretty much as a wash — it didn’t generate much of a pro-Trump backlash as some predicted, but nor did it seem to cause Trump to lose support. And other examples have had even less impact, fading away as the media spotlight shifts to a fresher outrage.

Part of the problem is that the systemic damage that Trump has done by politicizing the government is profound and extensive, complicating the ability of many Americans to discern each of the remedies necessary to revitalize our democracy. It’s noticeable that the one thing that does seem to have significantly hurt Trump’s political standing, if only by a few percentage points, is his botched handling of the pandemic. That’s because it’s had a clear impact on Americans’ everyday lives (has it ever!). We should also acknowledge that, as the Trump era has confirmed, a much larger share of the population than we’d like to admit, though not a majority, cares more about advantaging its own racial or cultural group than it does about concepts like democracy or the rule of law.

But whatever the cause of this dynamic, here’s the danger: whether or not the next president has Trump’s ingrained authoritarian streak, he or she will likely see that they can use the vast power of the federal government to benefit themselves without paying much of a price. Then, Trumpian levels of politicization of government science, law enforcement, and what should be expertise-based policymaking could become the new normal.

All this poses a genuine challenge for those of us who want to protect our constitutional democracy. The Brennan Center’s bipartisan task force of former government officials has laid out a set of policy solutions that would make it harder for future presidents to do what Trump has done, mainly by codifying norms against politicization into laws. As a result of this administration’s worst abuses of power, there seems to be a genuine commitment to address them through legislative fixes. But the erosion of guardrails is an issue that preceded Trump’s tenure and will require broader reforms and long-term organizing.

Despite what’s happened under Trump, there’s reason to think a movement like this can succeed. The failure of the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic hasn’t only been about incompetence. It also has been driven by frequent breaches of the guardrails that exist to ensure the government acts in the public interest. As such, it has brought home for many the connection between these guardrails and people’s daily lives.

It’s also worth thinking about what’s happened on issues of electoral reform. A decade or so ago, you’d hear that Americans cared only about “kitchen table” issues like the economy, taxes, and healthcare and not about “process” issues like campaign finance reform, voting rights, and gerrymandering, whose real-world impact was harder to perceive. After a decade of elections disfigured by billions in dark money, a blatant assault on voting access, and a redistricting cycle skewed beyond recognition by partisan map drawers, the public mobilized on those issues and pressured lawmakers to act. That’s why H.R.1, the seeping electoral reform measure that the Brennan Center helped write, was the first piece of legislation passed by the current Congress.

The same thing needs to happen around the politicization of government, which similarly threatens democracy.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center.