Kennedy’s retirement proves we can’t count on elites to constrain Trump’s worst excesses
By YASCHA MOUNK
JUNE 27, 20188:44 PM
When he heard that Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy was retiring on Wednesday, a friend in his twenties told me: “Today is the darkest political moment my generation has experienced.”
“What about the day Trump was elected?” I asked in surprise.
“This is worse,” he responded. “It’s the day Trump consolidates his power.”
My friend has a point. When Donald Trump was elected, “serious” social scientists argued that the institutions of the American Republic would constrain his power. The more historically literate among them even trotted out a quip Harry S. Truman reportedly made about Dwight D. Eisenhower: “He’ll sit here, and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike—it won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating.”
As we now know, it hasn’t quite turned out like that. Though Trump’s White House certainly faced a steep learning curve in its first months—and remains deeply dysfunctional even now—the administration has gradually grown to be surprisingly effective at turning the president’s instincts into public policy. From immigration to trade, and from foreign policy to health care, the past months have brought big and worrying changes.
It is not just that the administration that is proving to be more effective than we might have hoped; it is also that the institutions meant to constrain it are proving far more pliant than we might have feared.
This is obviously true of the Republican Party. At the time of Trump’s election, smart observers debated whether party elites would continue to disdain and regularly oppose the president (as the optimists claimed) or whether Trump would prove capable of building a slate of his own candidates and gradually changing the nature of the party (as pessimists like me feared). The truth turned out to be much more radical than either the optimists or the pessimists predicted: Members of the conservative movement who had spent decades professing their commitment to balanced budgets and constitutional values proved willing to sell out their principles with astounding rapidity.
The knock-on effect in Congress has been as immediate as it has been frightening. Even a year ago, institutions like the House Intelligence Committee still seemed to be animated by a sense of bipartisan mission; it was imaginable that, if only Special Counsel Robert Mueller found sufficiently compelling evidence of wrong-doing by the president, a large number of Republican representatives and senators might vote to impeach Trump. Today, the House Intelligence Committee is openly running interference for Trump; it is very hard to believe that 67 Senators would ever vote to impeach him.