Our Institutions Will Not Save Us

by N. Gabriel Martin

Among the most frequent and important complaints against President Trump and his administration is that it has contributed to the degradation of public institutions. The title of an Op-Ed in The Atlantic this year referred to his “war on American institutions,” and even prior to his election an Op-Ed in The New York Times warned that he was targeting ‘democracy’s institutions’ with his threats to jail Hillary Clinton. It isn’t just political institutions that Trump undermines, as an article in Nature argued, but scientific institutions as well.

Neither is the threat facing institutions today limited to Trump; other Trump-like political figures, such as Boris Johnson, pose similar dangers, as an article in The New Statesman argued. Still, Trump epitomises it. To sloppily paraphrase Tolstoy: every bad president is bad in their own way. The epitome of George W. Bush’s badness was his futile and venal wars, Trump’s is his destruction of institutions.

As an indictment, the one levied against Trump is oddly intangible. It is surprising that the chief complaint against the most unpopular president in history is not about a death toll, unemployment figures, or some similarly hard fact. I don’t mean that it is less consequential or important, on the contrary, our ideas and other artifacts of our culture are immensely important, and it is encouraging to see broader recognition of their significance in the opposition to Trump. To many, including myself, Trump and his enablers have proven the importance of institutions that had previously escaped attention: institutions such as voting rights, an independent judiciary, and congressional oversight, to name just a few. By endangering these and others, Trump has brought our attention to things that are easy to overlook because of their intangibility and because they can be taken for granted as long as they are functioning normally.

However, the indictment of Trump and his “war on institutions” often slides into an unjustifiable way of thinking about them. It supposes that there is something more to institutions than what we make of them. Complaints about the degradation, erosion, or perversion of social institutions, ideals, or norms imply that somehow their meaning and identity is set in stone, or that certain ways of using them go against a natural order.

There are a few varieties of this. There is a kind of originalism which supposes that the original purpose for which an institution was set up takes precedent; as though the design of the Environmental Protection Agency under President Nixon in 1970 to enforce regulations, such as the Clean Air Act expansion, continues to define the institution no matter what. But why should the original purpose for which an institution was established better define it than anything else that it has done over the course of its history? The EPA and its administrators have done a lot under its aegis to undermine its original conception. In 2015, an EPA administrator helped Monsanto conceal the cancer risks of the herbicide Roundup, and in 2008 its chief administrator capitulated to Bush administration demands to change a document so that it no longer declared that climate change imperiled public welfare. If the institution has been used to shield polluters, then it is a tool to shield polluters as much as it is anything else.

The defence of institutions also lends excessive weight to the ways that they formally define themselves, and not enough to what they actually do, or what purposes they are actually used for. The FBI lists protecting the US against terror attacks as its top priority, yet it has tended to ignore the white supremacist groups and movements responsible for the vast majority of what could be called terror attacks in the US. It also lists protecting civil rights as its fifth priority, which, given its track-record of infiltrating and undermining civil rights groups, is ludicrous doublespeak. An institutionalism which takes the FBI’s expressed aims at face value, failing to notice the ways in which it is used to different or even contrary purposes, is a failure to understand the institution as it is.

It is a kind of authoritarianism to suggest that the meaning, purpose, and identity of an institution is defined more by its founding, its charter or other documents, or its dictionary definition, than by anything else that people make of it. It lends privilege to the notions of those within the institution over those outside it, and those which exert more authority within it over those who are more junior. However, because institutions affect those outside them as well as, and often more than, those within them, insiders are not always in a better position to understand them. What those in authority over institutions are in a position to do is shape their meaning, but often it is those who are on the outside who are able to understand what the decisions of those in power have actually done.

The problem with Trump is that he is changing institutions for the worse, not that he is leading them away from their original or real purpose. Many of these institutions (such as the highly anti-democratic electoral system in the US) have always been at odds with their express purpose, and others were already bad and not worth fighting for (such as the justice system). But that doesn’t mean that the damage he is doing is not serious and should not be opposed. The institutions Trump is changing may already be bad, but in many cases he is making them worse.

Trump is dangerous because institutions are malleable and a sufficiently powerful party can bend them to their own interests, making them worse for the rest of us. But in this sense, Trump is far from unique.

Take, for example, the fight against introducing return-free income tax filing in the United States. The tax system in the US is far more complicated and opaque than in other countries where individuals file their own tax returns (such as Canada). Many countries (including the UK) don’t even require most individuals to file a tax return, a system which not only avoids placing an unnecessary burden on tax-payers, but is more equitable, because it allows tax-payers to know what information the government already has regarding their income.

There are a few factors responsible for the difficulty of filing taxes in the US, including its baroque set of rebates and exemptions. However, the chief obstacle to a simpler and fairer tax collection system for the majority of people in the US is opposition from the income tax preparation industry and from anti-taxation activists, especially Grover Norquist.

The difficulty of filing tax returns in the US is an enormous boon to the tax prep industry, which has successfully fought against a return-free tax system and lobbied congress to legally prohibit the IRS from offering its own free online tax preparation software. At the same time, Grover Norquist has used his sway over the Republican party to ensure its members oppose any effort to simplify the system. Republicans have consistently blocked efforts to simplify filing taxes because its difficulty helps to diminish popular opinion of the IRS, and of taxation itself. As Ronald Reagan said: “paying taxes should hurt.” Norquist’s fight against return-free filing fits a pattern of right-wing efforts to undermine public services—essential services are deprived of the support they need to function well, and then their dysfunction is cited as a reason to further diminish, eliminate, or privatise them.

Since the Clinton administration, the IRS has described its mission as to: “Provide America’s taxpayers top quality service by helping them understand and meet their tax responsibilities and enforce the law with integrity and fairness to all.” However, the opposition to return-free filing and a free, on-line filing system demonstrate that the agency’s own way of defining their mission is not neutral. Even if all parties might agree in principle on what it is meant to do, and can refer to the mission statement without irony, the ways in which they have exercised power over it indicates that conservatives and the tax-prep industry sees the system as serving an entirely different function.

For Grover Norquist and Ronald Reagan, the purpose of the IRS is not to help taxpayers understand their tax responsibilities, but to frustrate their understanding in order to inspire anger and resentment. For the tax preparation firms H&R Block and Intuit, the purpose of the IRS is not to help taxpayers at all, but to fail to help them, thereby providing these corporations with a customer base. It may seem perverse to conceive the function of the tax system as providing a revenue stream for private corporations, or as reinforcing an ideology, rather than serving the public good. However, the purpose of the institution is not set in stone, and it is not defined solely in explicit mission statements. It is not even the institution and its officers alone who define what the institution is and what it does. Grover Norquist is not an officer of the IRS, yet he has exerted more influence over it then many of its top administrators. To some extent, we all determine what it means, insofar as any of us can form a conception of it and treat it as we wish. However, to a far more significant extent, any party which manages to exert sufficient power over an institution, through whatever means, to determine what it does and doesn’t do, is deciding what it is.

There is a pivotal scene in the recent Showtime two-part series The Comey Rule in which the recently fired Attorney General Sally Yates (played by Holly Hunter) is giving her aide Justin Patel a ‘buck-up’ speech. She tells him to go outside and look at the capital buildings: “they’ve been here a long time,” she says “and they’re gonna be here a long time, because what they represent is eternal: institutions, the rule of law. No matter who’s in power.” Nothing could be further from the truth, as Yates’ successor Rod Rosenstein seems to recognise when Patel repeats the speech to him at the series’ denouement. Buildings can represent many things, and are not stable signifiers. Institutions and the rule of law, far from being eternal, change over time and are vulnerable to the wills of those in power.

That’s why its important to fight against bad uses of institutions, not because they use institutions improperly, but because they are bad. There is no eternal, divine or natural state of institutions, as Yates implies. For a person with the considerable power of a US Attorney General to believe that there is is a cop-out. It means that it doesn’t really matter if she and all of the other people in that film who are devoted to preserving institutions fail, things will still turn out alright. It supposes that there is a natural way for the institutions to be, and therefore a fatalism which will ensure that eventually they (and everything else) will turn out for the best.

If that were true, political struggles wouldn’t really matter. But they do matter, because the fate of institutions, and our fate as well, is only what we make of them. In another recent political drama, Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago Seven, Sorkin has the political activist Abbie Hoffman, played by Sacha Baron Cohen, mouth the improbable, uncharacteristically reverent words: “I think the institutions of our democracy are wonderful things that right now are populated by some terrible people.” The separation that Sorkin wants to draw between the institutions and the people who run them can’t be made. That’s why it matters who runs them, and why we have to fight to make our institutions into what we need them to be; because the last four years have shown beyond a doubt that our institutions will not protect us.


NOTE: Thanks to a reader for pointing out the similarity of this post’s title to the title of a chapter of Masha Gessen’s book Surviving Autocracy and a section of her article “Rules for Surviving Autocracy”.