The view from Russia.

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Trump's Systematic Attack on U.S. Institutions

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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There is no T-E-A-M in “I.”

This was the obvious lesson as Donald Trump sold out House Republicans this week. GOP members had sought to quietly defang an anti-corruption watchdog office. After angry constituents phoned House offices, Trump saw the Republicans’ position eroding, and slipped them a banana peel, tweeting that they should focus on tax reform and health care instead. He didn’t object to their goal; ethics are not exactly a Trump priority. He was simply taking an opportunity to enhance his image while sullying that of Congress.

Because Trump needs the Republican majority in Congress, his attacks on the institution will be more subtle than his attacks on other democratic institutions have been. But he intends to undermine Congress early and often, then bring it to heel.

During the Republican primaries, Trump was surrounded on the debate stage by rivals competing for attention and votes. In Washington, he will be surrounded by competing power centers, institutions that play vital roles in balancing power, mediating conflicts and managing the complex, messy work of the world’s most powerful democratic society.

Trump has signaled clearly that he will deal with powerful democratic institutions as he dealt with his Republican rivals. First he will denigrate them. Then he will demand their public submission to him. Little Marco, Lyin’ Ted and Low-Energy Jeb will find this game familiar.

Look at Trump’s approach to U.S. intelligence agencies. They are far from perfect. But that is not what troubles Trump. What troubles him is that they are, as yet, too far from submissive. They are a threat to him. They are powerful. They are independent. They know things (including things about Trump).

When U.S. intelligence agencies confirmed that Russia had interfered in the U.S. presidential election, Trump released a statement on Dec. 9 stating, “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.”

Trump similarly denigrated the value of intelligence briefings, saying they are repetitive and superfluous; he doesn’t need them because he is a “smart person.”

On New Year’s Eve, responding to reports that Russian agents had stolen Democratic e-mails with the goal of assisting Trump’s election, Trump issued this rebuttal: “I know a lot about hacking. And hacking is a very hard thing to prove. So it could be somebody else. And I also know things that other people don’t know, and so they cannot be sure of the situation.”

Phase I: The intelligence agencies are incompetent. They don’t know what they’re talking about. Trump, who has repeatedly failed to display even rudimentary knowledge of national security or international affairs, knows far more than they do.

Phase II: “Trump Plans Spy Agency Overhaul.” That’s the front-page headline on the Jan. 5 Wall Street Journal. The president-elect, the Journal continued, “sees departments as over-staffed, politicized.”

See how this works? The CIA refused to provide Trump with the bogus, politicized analysis that he hoped would exonerate Russian espionage. So the CIA is stupid, incompetent, wrong -- and about to be downsized, restructured and marginalized.

Liberals and activists have focused on policy when decrying Trump’s cabinet nominations, which heavily feature individuals opposed to the very missions of the agencies they have been selected to lead. Several of Trump’s agency appointments appear determined not to redirect their agencies -- the prerogative of an incoming administration -- but to destroy them.

Former Texas Governor Rick Perry, who is on the less extreme end of Trump appointees, was even explicit about it, once saying he would eliminate the Department of Energy altogether. By nominating Perry to lead that department, Trump is sending the energy bureaucracy the same message he is sending the CIA: Submit or wither.

The more independent the power center, the more Trump perceives it as a threat to be vanquished. Listen to Trump on the Federal Reserve Bank. “The Fed is being more political than Secretary Clinton,” Trump said during a September debate with Hillary Clinton. He repeated his allegation -- without evidence, of course -- that Chairwoman Janet Yellen had embraced low interest rates to help Obama politically.

How long before Trump seeks to undermine Yellen’s power more aggressively?

The news media, the institution explicitly tasked with holding the political system accountable, is perhaps Trump’s most consistent target. During the campaign, he encouraged his crowds to verbally abuse reporters -- many of them young women -- penned in the press section of arenas. (Many Trump supporters complied.) He consistently accuses the news media of lying when they report accurately on his words and conduct.

As a consequence, Trump has accelerated the already unhealthy appetite of Republican voters for propaganda and encouraged millions of Americans to believe falsehoods. The propaganda emanating from his Twitter feed is a formidable rival to any legitimate news organization in the country. The war on truth will be a struggle. But right now, he is winning.

Trump is even undermining democratic institutions abroad, sowing doubt among NATO allies, encouraging right-wing populists in Britain, France and elsewhere, and playing down the threat that Russia’s Vladimir Putin poses to European democracies, which Putin floods with both propaganda and refugees fleeing Russian bombs in Syria.

Trump has been more circumspect about some institutions: the Treasury, the Supreme Court, the Pentagon. But they will not escape attack. Trump previously said Chief Justice John Roberts made “terrible” decisions on health-care cases. It doesn’t take much imagination to conjure what Trump will do the first time the high court displeases him. Likewise, despite his repeated displays of ignorance during the campaign, Trump famously said he knows more about Islamic State “than the generals do.” (Denigration, remember, is Phase I.)

Political and media institutions and the experts who staff them are in disrepute, both because of their own arrogance and mistakes and because of a long, concerted effort, largely engineered by conservatives, to discredit them. But the U.S. is not a New England village capable of being governed by consensus at the town hall. It is a large and complex society with a vast array of competing interests. It must face dangerous enemies, and manage unwieldy alliances, around the world. It needs a strong civil society and secure institutions to accomplish its goals and defend the traditions and rights of liberal democracy.

Trump opposes that. The media. The intelligence community. The election system. Government scientists. The federal bureaucracy. The central bank. In time, Congress and other key institutions of democratic government will also come under sustained attack from Trump, who has no desire to share power in a democratic system of checks and balances and broadly distributed authority.

“I alone can fix it,” Trump said in his ominous speech accepting the Republican nomination for president. He has told us repeatedly that he has no respect or deference for democratic institutions, civil discourse or basic honesty. He has signaled consistently that an attack on democracy is coming.

Well, it’s here.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net