White House

Don't Count on Institutions to Temper Trump

Personnel can be replaced and investigations subverted.

What, him worry?

Photographer: Michael Reynolds/Bloomberg

To this observer from India, three recent events in the U.S. suggest that the world’s second-largest democracy is coming closer to understanding something that many of us in the world’s largest figured out awhile ago: Institutions are shockingly easy to subvert.

Remember how we were told that America’s matchless institutions would rein in Donald Trump? Well, we’re getting a sense of how fragile those institutions are. Even after months of sleaze, incompetence and revelations about the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, it remains objectively true that the U.S. president is no more likely to be forced out of office today than he was on Inauguration Day. In fact, as anyone with experience of populists in office can tell you, that prospect grows less likely every day.

What’s happened in the past month? The man who ran the federal government’s ethics watchdog resigned in frustration. Sheldon Silver, a New York state politician, won an appeals-court victory in a corruption case. And Trump lambasted his attorney general for recusing himself from the Russia investigation, while musing about firing the special prosecutor appointed to lead it.

Silver was the first beneficiary of a recent narrowing by the U.S. Supreme Court of what, legally, constitutes an “official act” that can become the subject of a corruption investigation. Essentially, corruption is now an incredibly difficult thing to prove in the U.S., even when the act itself is in the open.

And once powerful leaders can pick and choose the people whose job it is to watch out for graft, rooting out corruption becomes even harder.  

Look at India’s recent history. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi was elected in 2014, he took over from an administration widely attacked for being one of the most corrupt in India’s history. Few cases were proved in a court of law, but that didn’t matter; there were enough reports from independent government auditors and commissioners, and leaks from within the establishment, for the case to be proven politically.

Modi is given credit for running a comparatively corruption-free administration. But that’s partly because he controls the flow of information about his government to a degree not seen in years. The government has ducked out of appointing a corruption ombudsman. It’s hollowed out the freedom-of-information law. And it has tightened the executive’s control on hitherto independent institutions, partly by picking loyalists to head them. If there were stories that needed to be told, it’s not clear how they’d get out. Who would find them?                                                

One can see the same pattern repeated across the world. Today’s populists don’t necessarily want to shut down the institutions that are supposed to be watching over them. Why bother, when those institutions are so easily paralyzed or subverted with a few personnel choices?

Trump dimly perceives this as well. In his eyes, the attorney general should protect him from the Russia investigation, not expose him to a special prosecutor. The FBI chief needs to be loyal to the president, not to the truth.

The Trump administration looks singularly chaotic and corrupt at the moment partly because it hasn’t yet managed to make the appointments necessary to control the narrative. The question Americans should ask is: What happens if and when it does? In other words, what happens when the leaks stop coming? When the Office of Government Ethics declares, say, that there’s nothing wrong with promoting your business interests while serving as president? Those who already dislike Trump may grow ever more convinced that he’s a crook, but those who voted for him probably won’t.

Remember that the politics embodied by populists like Modi, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and now Trump rests on the insistence that a corrupt elite is out to get them. Independent institutions stand no chance against that sort of narrative. You can attack them and force out their leaders with impunity, because your voters believe you’re just fighting the elite that was conspiring against you anyway.

Worse, you can escape any appearance of impropriety because your voters are emotionally invested in the notion that you’re not personally corrupt, that you’re “draining the swamp." And, once you control the institutions, corruption is doubly difficult to prove. David Frum’s autocrats’ playbook gets that right: “Rumors of graft are easy to dismiss.”

So, what’s to be done? Obviously, there are no easy answers; if there were, populist strongmen wouldn’t be spreading across the world like a rash. All I have is a word of warning, from a country that’s gone through this already: Defend every independent institution like it’s the last bulwark of freedom. It might well be.

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:
    Mihir Sharma at m.s.sharma@gmail.com

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Nisid Hajari at nhajari@bloomberg.net

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