Trump Will March Through Our Institutions, Leaving Devastation In His Wake

“I.. know things that other people don’t know... [y]ou’ll find out on Tuesday or Wednesday.”

—President-elect Donald Trump, December 31

“The ‘Intelligence’ briefing on so-called ‘Russian hacking’ was delayed until Friday, perhaps more time needed to build a case. Very strange!”

—President-elect Donald Trump on Twitter, January 3

So Trump dismisses the integrity and competence of the US intelligence agencies, implying some deceptive agenda and putting “intelligence” and “Russian hacking” in scare quotes. He also hints that he’s going to reveal selected classified information (no doubt in some misleading way, which the agencies can’t of course counter since the info is, ahem, classified) in order to protect his own ego against any hint that the election wasn’t quite on the up-and-up. Because what could be more important than Trump’s ego?

So here’s what’s going to happen: The intelligence agencies are not going to trust the President and are going to avoid giving him any sensitive information. They’ll deal with State or Defense or the relevant agencies directly, leaving Trump’s hires to fight it out among themselves for unofficial power, bolstered by backdoor relationships in which a shared, illicit understanding with the intelligence apparatus is rewarded with more access to powerful, actionable information that the President can’t be trusted with.

This is not how our government - hedged in by painfully-evolved protocol and chain-of-command conventions, as important and necessary to the restraints on power as the explicit separations of powers - is designed to work. But why would Trump care? He’s made very clear that he believes that policy is made in tweets - and that any whim that flows from his pathetic, narcissistic, and ultimately deeply insecure sense of himself in fact is policy. He doesn’t know the difference; and, not having come up through the Party apparatus nor the political system, he doesn’t even know that he doesn’t know. And he’s not beholden to anyone. He is the loosest of loose cannons. Since ego is everything, as long as his ego is satisfied he’ll be content to be marginalized by smarter people than himself. Let him believe himself actually President, let the commands and pronouncements flow, let the crowds of know-nothings roar their approval, and he’ll be fine. What a chump that pompous Obama was! A real leader doesn’t need to work that hard.

The rest of us won’t be fine, however. A clear and transparent delineation of power is vital to a democracy, vital to accountability, vital to a healthy public agenda. As awful a president as Trump would be, I would feel better knowing that he is the President, rather than a secretive clique of managers at the intelligence agencies and the department bureaucracies whose true policies and agendae will never be debated in Congress, nor (if all goes as they would like) examined by what used to be called the press. An end-run around institutions, from the official policy-making bodies to the presidency itself, is far more damaging to our ideal of a democratic government than any horrendous formal policies that may emerge from a government that includes Rex Tillerson, Tom Price, and Scott Pruitt.

Trump believes he can govern by personality and decree. The Republican Congress thinks it can get what it wants from him, reasoning, no doubt correctly, that he isn’t greatly interested in actual policy. And the bureaucracy has a life and an agenda of its own, as social scientists from Max Weber to Theda Skocpol have well documented. The holders of formal and informal power are not going to have any motivation to point out that the emperor has no clothes. Let the Twitter wars commence! Trump, with his famously short attention span, will quickly exhaust himself with capricious pronouncements and soliciting kickbacks: governance as he sees it.

Fortunately the golf course at Mar-a-Lago is super classy; the hostesses are waiting to greet him, and they’re all perfect 10s. This is how America ends.