The Long Arm of the Strongman
How China and Russia Use Sharp Power to Threaten Democracies
The U.S. government’s response to the novel coronavirus pandemic has been confusing, inconsistent, and counterproductive. Since February, the data from China, South Korea, and Italy have clearly shown that the virus spreads rapidly in areas that do not practice social distancing—and that simple measures to keep people apart can significantly slow the rate of new infections. But the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump did not coordinate any social distancing. And even as acute cases overwhelmed Italy’s hospitals, the administration made few efforts to shore up the U.S. health-care system, increase the number of ventilators in hospitals, or make testing widely available.
Many blame these failures on the president, who initially downplayed the severity of the crisis. As recently as March 4, Trump insisted that COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, was no worse than the flu. A week later, he claimed that the U.S. health-care system was well prepared for the outbreak. For encouraging the nation to sleepwalk into a crisis, Trump does indeed deserve blame. But even more blameworthy has been the president’s assault on U.S. institutions, which began long before the novel coronavirus appeared and will be felt long after it is gone.
By relentlessly attacking the norms of professionalism, independence, and technocratic expertise, and prioritizing political loyalty above all else, Trump has weakened the federal bureaucracy to such an extent that it is now beginning to resemble a “Paper Leviathan,” the term the political economist James Robinson and I use to describe autocratic states that offer little room for democratic input or criticism of government—and exhibit paper-thin policymaking competence as a result. Bureaucrats in these countries get accustomed to praising, agreeing with, and taking orders from the top rather than using their expertise to solve problems. The more American bureaucrats come to resemble autocratic yes men, the less society will trust them and the less effective they will be in moments of crisis like this one.
In just a little more than three years in office, Trump has upended many of the political norms that previously made the U.S. political system function—including the expectations that the president would not tell outright lies; would not interfere in court cases; would not obstruct law enforcement investigations; would not condone, let alone encourage, mob violence; would not materially benefit—or allow his family to benefit—from executive power and privilege; and would not discriminate against citizens on the basis of their race, ethnicity, or religion. In eviscerating these norms, Trump has accelerated the polarization of U.S. politics—a corrosive trend that predated him but that has intensified on his watch. The costs of polarization are evident not only in the acrimony of political discourse but in the inability of politicians to compromise to solve basic problems such as lack of health care for millions, the precarious situation of the undocumented, and decaying public infrastructure—or even to prevent the government from periodically shutting down.
Trump’s tenure has been even more calamitous for one of the most important institutional pillars that for the last two centuries has constrained executive power: the civil service. To be sure, by granting the president sweeping powers to make senior appointments, U.S. political institutions don’t make it easy for nonpartisan professionalism to take root in the executive agencies. But even under administrations with very different priorities and policy agendas, most departments have managed to function effectively and pursue sound policies in fields as diverse as education, environment, commerce, aeronautics, space, and, of course, disease control. By upholding nonpartisan rules and procedures and relying on technocratic expertise, professional bureaucrats who serve under political appointees function as a kind of guardrail for administrations, preventing their more extreme or nakedly partisan policies from being implemented. A professional civil service has also been the last, most powerful defense against natural disasters and health emergencies.
The incentive to hew to Trump's narrative—or at least not to contradict it publicly—is overwhelming.
The Trump administration not only has failed to maintain the critical health infrastructure that protects the nation from contagious diseases—for example, he disbanded the pandemic preparedness unit that was part of the National Security Council until 2018—but has actively weakened the civil service. The president’s hostility to impartial expertise has forced many of the most capable and experienced federal employees to quit, only to be replaced by Trump loyalists. His persistent attacks against those who contradict his untruths or point out problems with his administration’s policies have created an atmosphere of fear that impedes bureaucrats from speaking up. This reticence partly explains the slow, muted, and ineffective initial response to the coronavirus outbreak from federal health agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The president has shown that he is willing to publicly assail individual civil servants who anger him, as he did Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, the former National Security Council staffer who testified in the impeachment investigation, and so the incentive to hew to his narrative—or at least not to contradict it publicly—is overwhelming.
Some officials, such as Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, have sounded the alarm anyway. But even Fauci has admitted that “you don’t want to go to war with a president. . . . But you got to walk the fine balance of making sure you continue to tell the truth.”
Trump’s assault on the federal bureaucracy is leading the United States down a path of institutional decay followed by many once democratic, now authoritarian countries. From Argentina under Juan Perón in the mid-twentieth century to Hungary under Viktor Orban and Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan today, a turning point in nearly all such tragedies has been loss of independence in the civil service and the judiciary. The playbook often starts with a would-be autocrat filling state institutions with loyalists who will parrot what the leader wants to hear. Then come the inevitable policy mistakes, as ideology and sycophancy overwhelm sound advice. But without independence and commitment to expertise, politicians, top bureaucrats, and judges double down on their mistakes, sidelining anyone who speaks out against them. As public trust in state institutions dwindles and civil servants lose their sense of accountability to the public at large, the transformation to Paper Leviathan can be swift.
It is not too late to reverse the damage that Trump has done to U.S. institutions and to the federal bureaucracy. A first step toward doing so would be to give up the dangerous myth that the Constitution, designed masterfully by the Founding Fathers, can protect U.S. democracy even from a narcissistic, unpredictable, polarizing, and authoritarian president. James Madison proclaimed in Federalist No. 57 that “the aim of every political constitution is, or ought to be, first to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous whilst they continue to hold their public trust.” The U.S. Constitution has utterly failed on the first count. Why, then, should anyone trust it to succeed on the second?
No amount of constitutional checks or balances can rein in this president or another like him. The separation of powers hasn’t restrained Trump. To the extent that he has been contained, this has been thanks to the media, civil society, and the electorate. True, the House of Representatives has stood against many of Trump’s worst policies, going so far as to impeach him, but voters were the ones who forced the House to act by making their preferences clear in the midterms. Likewise, when the judiciary has acted—for example by staying Trump’s travel ban targeting majority-Muslim nations—it has often done so because of lawsuits and actions brought by organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union.
With the Constitution failing to restrain the president, and the civil service under attack by him, it will take societal involvement in politics as well as leadership from state and local governments and private corporations to revitalize U.S. institutions. It won’t be enough to elect a new president in November 2020. The hard work must involve civil society and private enterprises working together with the state to tackle major institutional and economic problems.
That same coalition of actors will need to see the United States through the coronavirus crisis. The White House is finally acting, but it is still not doing enough. Ventilators and test kits are not yet available in anywhere close to the numbers needed, and there appears to be no coherent plan for maintaining social distancing while at the same time getting the economy working again (which will be necessary to avoid an economic meltdown). With the administration and the federal bureaucracy failing to step up, civil society, the media, and experts outside of government must put additional pressure on the administration while at the same time picking up some of the slack themselves. It is a tall order, but Taiwan offers a model of how society can help develop solutions that complement government efforts to slow the spread of the virus and limit the death toll. The United States will have to do even more to strengthen its failing health-care system and, in the process, rebuild trust in state institutions.