Institutional spine

Major institutions refused to buckle under pressure from President Trump when he tried systemic changes to shore up his chances for a second term

The undermining of all major institutions of democracy in the United States was afoot in all earnest by President Donald Trump in his four-year tenure — from the Judiciary and Military to even his own Justice Department, all were par for course as long as the weakening of the institutions solidified Trump’s own chances for a second term. His patent hiring-and-firing spree, refusing to cooperate with the Congress on critical investigations, attacking independent Press to filling up key appointments with supposed loyalists raised serious questions about the free and fair functioning of democracy. Not surprisingly, the US had by 2017 slipped from the status of “full democracy” to “flawed democracy” as per the Democracy Index, as published by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). The report had noted: “Trust in political institutions is an essential component of well-functioning democracies. Yet surveys by Pew, Gallup and other polling agencies have confirmed that public confidence in the Government has slumped to historic lows in the US. This has had a corrosive effect on the quality of democracy.”

While the systemic changes, interferences and appointments were being made towards Trump’s electoral advantage, somewhere the popularity polls were still giving him nightmares — he knew that when push comes to shove, he would need these institutions to be spineless, acquiesce and fall in line with Trump, irrespective of the election results. The telltale signs of Trump’s nervousness were written all over when for months he refused to commit honouring the poll results and ensuring a peaceful transition of power — the seeds of “rigged”, “stolen” and “fraudulent” elections were planted well in advance.

Two specific institutions were getting primed for any eventuality i.e. Judiciary and the Armed Forces. Trump’s initial comfort with a 5-4 conservative majority in the Supreme Court had given him reasons to believe that he could persist with controversial steps like the travel ban from several Muslim-majority nations, as was upheld by the courts then. But soon and awkwardly so for Trump, the Supreme Court started asserting its independent views that militated against Trump’s preferences — even Trump’s personal appointees like Justice Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch voted against his interests in certain cases. White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany shockingly admitted that the key takeaway from the unfavourable rulings was that ‘we need more conservative justices on the courts’. Trump did exactly that, with the hurried appointment of Justice Amy Barett eight days before elections, creating a powerful 6-3 conservative tilt. Tellingly, Trump had desired that the newly appointed Justice Amy Barett participate in the forthcoming election-related cases that went to the courts.

Even in the Military realm, when the appointment to the top post of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to succeed the previous Obama-appointee Gen Joseph F Dundford Jr was getting considered, President Trump had called the shots. As per protocol and professional decorum, the Defense Secretary has a say in suggesting a name. Given that the Defense Secretary at that time was the distinguished former combatant James Mattis, his professional assessment carried weight — Mattis had preferred Air Force Chief of Staff Gen David Goldfein; however it was Trump who overruled the choice and appointed General Mark Milley instead. Later, General Milley had to so often navigate through the minefield of Trump’s fickle, whimsical and overtly political theatrics that the top military advisor many a time saw himself at odds with the President’s instincts. It was left to him and the subsequent Defense Secretary, Mark Esper, to control wild ideas like using military personnel to control civil unrest on the streets of the US. Expectedly, Mark Esper too was fired and yet another ‘loyalist’ ushered in.

But to the credit of both the institutions, much before the electoral process had started — neither gave any statement or did any act to suggest that they indeed had succumbed or forsaken their institutional independence, at the altar of Donald Trump. At one stage, General Milley had publicly expressed regret at having mistakenly got caught in an overtly political moment, whilst in uniform — he rightfully acknowledged that the optics had diminished the apolitical stance of the Armed Forces. At yet another event later, when the chaos of the electoral results was dangerously poised, he tellingly clarified: “We do not take an oath to a king or a queen, a tyrant or a dictator. We do not take an oath to an individual…We take an oath to the Constitution” — unequivocally indicating that the US Military was not beholden to anyone.

Similarly, the Supreme Court with an ostensibly favourable 6-3 Trump/conservative tilt, rejected a bid by the Texas’s Attorney General, which was supported by the President, in the strongest ever indication that Trump cannot count on the top courts to overturn election results under flimsy or make-believe grounds. Not only did the courts reject Texas’s plea challenging the results towards the four battleground States but it effectively did so on grounds that willy-nilly checkmate similar misadventures in other States too. The conspiracy theories are simply unlikely to be entertained by the courts, irrespective of the ideological composition of the majority therein. The sore loser in Trump was left fuming: “The Supreme Court really let us down. No wisdom, no courage!” On the contrary, it was the actual demonstration of wisdom and courage by the hallowed institutions of the US Government that would save it from the sure ruin of its revered democracy, as was envisaged and enshrined by its founding fathers.

From falsely (and prematurely) claiming electoral victory, calling to halt vote counting to refusing to accept the results — Trump has done everything possible to degenerate and abuse power and respect in the democratic processes. Thankfully, the institutions have shown integrity, steel and resilience despite the umpteen times these were subjected to tinkering, though Trump has almost guaranteed a polarised, fractured and deeply divided society with his continuing vanity and petulance, which will far outlive his stay at the White House. The ongoing Trump saga is a timely reminder for the leaderships and institutions in other democracies where tendencies to take liberties with institutions are apparent.

(The writer, a military veteran, is a former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry. The views expressed are personal.)

Source: The pioneer

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