Donald Trump is a Rorschach blot on the office of the presidency. Some people look at him and see a dangerous authoritarian. Some see a leader too weak to be authoritarian. Some see a weak leader who nonetheless has an authoritarian heart. And that’s just the people who don’t like the guy.
Still, pretty much everyone who isn’t paid to pretend otherwise agrees that he’s been hemmed in by Washington’s permanent institutions. Trump has signed just one major piece of legislation, and his executive orders have frequently landed with a splat. From his stab at banning transgender soldiers to his efforts to defund sanctuary cities, Trump has hit one wall after another.
That has led some anti-Trump pundits to a quietly optimistic take on the state of the country. “America’s core institutions may not be in perfect health,” Zack Beauchamp summed it up in Vox, “but they seem to be functioning well enough to constrain a president who’s gone after essential parts of its democratic system.”
Yet if institutions have largely kept Trump from pushing presidential power in new directions, they have also let him intensify authoritarian policies that already exist. While some institutions have kept Trump in check, others have empowered him.
In some ways, immigration is the great success story for the institutions-will-save-us crowd. Thanks to the courts, Trump’s travel ban has been both narrowed and delayed. State and local government have refused to cooperate with some elements of Trump’s deportation drive, and so far the Justice Department has been impotent in its efforts to bring them in line. Trump hasn’t even had much luck yet in getting Congress to cough up funds for his border wall. But courts, federalism and an opposition party aren’t the only institutions at work here.
Trump inherited a powerful raids-and-deportation apparatus, and he hasn’t been shy about using it. And so while deportations themselves have receded somewhat in the last year, deportation arrests have surged — and they’re much more likely to take place far from the border. The American Civil Liberties Union reports a “notable increase” in “arrests of people who don’t have criminal records, those who show up to routine check-in meetings with agents, and even people previously offered humanitarian exceptions.”
That apparatus is an institution. It was built up by prior presidents of both parties, along with Congress and the bureaucracy. They assembled a weapon, and then they left it on the Oval Office desk.
Speaking of weapons: Trump has escalated the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, and his war with Islamic State killed more civilians in just over half a year than Barack Obama’s did in three years. He’s been able to do such things because he inherited a strong institution: an increasingly unaccountable system for raining death from the air. Obama got away with claiming that the authorization to use military force to fight the perpetrators of Sept. 11, 2001, covers all manner of battles around the world. Naturally, Trump’s team has embraced the argument.
Institutions haven’t just empowered Trump; he’s empowered institutions.
And if the president decides to launch nuclear missiles at North Korea this evening, it would take a full-fledged mutiny to stop him. Thank a decades-old policy of giving the president unilateral control of the nuclear arsenal.
Institutions haven’t just empowered Trump; he’s empowered institutions. He has allowed the military to make its own decisions on a host of war-making matters without White House input — including, in some theaters, whether to launch a raid or airstrike. He has also reportedly given the CIA the right to conduct its own covert drone strikes in Syria, and there has been talk of letting it exercise that authority elsewhere. Power isn’t flowing to the executive so much as it’s flowing to whole swaths of the executive branch. (That has been true in some ways of the immigration crackdown too. When the slipshod first version of the travel ban came down, Customs and Border Protection field agents were left to make their own choices about how to interpret and enforce it.)
As I write, Donald Trump is at war with elements of the national security and intelligence bureaucracies — or as they’re better known these days, the deep state. Despite this, he hasn’t done anything to roll back the powers of the Federal Bureau of Investigation or the National Security Agency. Indeed, he just signed a bill that amps up the very surveillance state that he bitterly claims his enemies have wielded against him.
That shouldn’t surprise anyone. Trump’s fear isn’t that those institutions are too powerful; it’s that they’re disloyal. He doesn’t want reform; he wants a purge. Hemmed in by institutions, he asks himself how he could make those institutions work for him instead of against him. And why wouldn’t he? After all, several are already on the job.
Jesse Walker is an editor at Reason magazine. His most recent book is “The United States of Paranoia.”