Will Democrats Destroy Our Democracy?

That’s a clickbaity title, but no less so than “Will Donald Trump Destroy the Presidency?,” which is the title stuck on Jack Goldsmith‘s recent essay at The Atlantic.  It’s a piece that’s occasionally surprising, but ultimately depressing for reasons inside and outside its text.

It’s a longread, largely rehashing and often overhyping familiar concerns about Pres. Trump trampling various norms of his office; some of the concerns are more valid than others.  Goldsmith writes with some degree of relief that Trump’s impulses have often been checked by other institutions, including the judiciary, the bureaucracy, the GOP-controlled Congress, and the media.

Tucked into this thesis, however, is criticism of some of these institutions that you don’t always see at The Atlantic.  For example, in discussing the bureaucracy’s widespread and coordinated anti-Trump leaks of classified information and intelligence intercepts, Goldsmith observes:

These norm violations are an immune response to Trump’s attacks on the intelligence community. But the toll from the leaks has been significant and may outlast the Trump presidency. Although a future president likely won’t find advantage in following Trump’s example, intelligence officials who have discovered the political power of leaking secretly collected information about Americans may well continue the practice. A world without norms to prevent the disclosure of sensitive information about U.S. citizens is not just a world in which Michael Flynn is revealed as a liar and removed from office. It is also a world in which intelligence bureaucrats repeat the trick for very different political ends that they deem worthy but that might not be.

Or consider Goldsmith’s assessment of how lower-court judges handled Trump’s so-called travel ban:

The judges had many avenues to rule against Trump on many issues, especially with regard to the first order. They had plenty of reasons to be angry or defensive because of his tweeted attacks. But they neglected principles of restraint, prudence, and precedent to rule against him across the board based on what seemed to many a tacit determination that the just-elected president lacked legitimacy on immigration issues. 

If judges were to continue such behavior for four or eight years, judicial norms and trust in the judiciary might take a serious hit. But there are reasons to think this won’t happen. Federal judges sit in a hierarchical system with the Supreme Court at the top. The highest court in the land doesn’t just overrule lower-court legal decisions; it can also model proper judicial behavior. This is what the Supreme Court did in its opinion in late June announcing that it would review the lower-court decisions about Trump’s second immigration order. The nine justices rarely agree on any issue of importance. But they unanimously ruled that, at a minimum, the lower-court injunctions were too broad and had failed to take his national-security prerogatives seriously enough.”

And Goldsmith worries even more about the partisanship of the media:

[W]hile Trumpism has been good for the media business, it has not been good for overall media credibility. An Emerson College poll in February indicated that more voters found Trump to be truthful than the news media, and a Suffolk University/USA Today poll in June concluded that the historically unpopular president still had a slightly higher favorability rating than the media. Trump is not just discrediting the mainstream news, but quickening changes in right-wing media as well. Fox News Channel always leaned right, but in the past year several of its programs have become open propaganda arms for Trump. And sharply partisan outlets like Breitbart News and The Daily Caller have grown in influence among conservatives. 

‘Does it ever go back?’ chief White House correspondent Peter Baker asked his [New York] Times colleagues. ‘Have we changed something in a fundamental way in terms of the relationship between the person in the White House, people in power, and the media?’ The answers to those questions are no and yes, respectively. The media have every incentive to continue on their current trajectories. And because Trump’s extreme media-bashing is perceived to have served him relatively well, other Republicans will likely perpetuate his strategy. Many on the right increasingly agree with a point Ron Unz, the influential former publisher of The American Conservative, made in a memo last year. ‘The media is the crucial force empowering the opposition and should be regarded as a primary target of any political strategy,’ Unz wrote. ‘Discrediting the media anywhere weakens it everywhere.’

As much as I appreciate Goldsmith’s gesture toward even-handedness, I still left the essay a bit depressed for at least three reasons.  First, I doubt few regular readers of The Atlantic will take these points to heart; they’re already working on their personal articles of impeachment.  Second, I doubt few conservatives will read the essay, not least because it was published at The Atlantic.  Third, I suspect many conservatives would dismiss Goldsmith’s effort to call out Trump’s adversaries when they go too far, given that FNC and talk radio have already moved on to theories about a soft coup and the FBI being like the KGB.

In short, I suspect Goldsmith is largely preaching to no one, as the rival choirs have no interest in listening.

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