Did you watch former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on 60 Minutes last Sunday? He offered perceptive perspectives on several subjects. His most important observation was a comment about former President Trump. Gates, a Republican, said his biggest concern about Trump was the former president’s “indifference to institutions.” That comment is the subject of this column.
Robert Gates served both Republican and Democratic administrations with distinction. Upon election in 2008, Barack Obama surprised insiders by asking Gates, appointed Secretary of Defense by George W. Bush, to continue to serve in that post. That was extraordinary but says something about Gates’ character. Gates viewed his public service as service to the people, not to a particular president or party. How refreshing.
In the interview, Gates shared his perspectives on this year’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and placed blame on both President Biden for inadequate planning and on Donald Trump for his negotiated withdrawal from the Taliban. Gates’ objectivity is a refreshing break from both parties’ attempts to blame the other for the debacle.
After discussing Afghanistan, Anderson Cooper asked Gates whether he thought Donald Trump would run for president in 2024. The answer was “I hope not.” He explained his answer by noting, “I am a strong believer in institutions whether it’s the intelligence community, the Defense Department, the State Department, the Justice Department, the FBI. He disdains institutions and—and he did a lot to weaken institutions.”
What does it mean to weaken institutions? It means the practice, elevated to an art by Donald Trump, of both maligning cabinet level agencies and ignoring historical limitations on their involvement in politics. In the case of the Department of Justice, Trump attempted to get the Department to declare the election results fraudulent to justify his claims that he won the election and to set the stage for a coup. In the case of the Department of Defense, military leaders such as General Mark Milley and others were alarmed at efforts to involve the military in his campaign.
The net result of attempting to abuse federal agencies is to weaken the public’s support for them. Americans of all political perspectives widely support the military because they view it as an apolitical part of government. Similarly, the intelligence agencies are seen as supporting the national interest. When a president attempts to enlist them to his personal service, they lose credibility. When an unpopular president is involved, the agencies may be seen as a threat to democracy.
The worst instance of Trump weakening institutions has been his abuse of Congress—specifically his attempt to overturn the 2020 election results on January 6. Had Mike Pence rejected the election results and turned the election over to state delegations to select alternative state delegations, Trump could have been declared president despite losing by more than seven million votes.
This outcome could not only have started a civil war, but it also would have permanently discredited Congress. The single most important institution in our form of government, the House of Representatives, would have lost credibility. The country would be one step closer to chaos.
Trump’s disdain for institutions has set the stage for others to question institutions. In recent months, we have heard about the “outrage” of Wyoming having the same number of Senators as California. Others have made calls to “pack” the Supreme Court to frustrate a conservative majority. The expansion of the Court is justified, proponents say, because Senate Republicans ignored precedents by both blocking President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland in 2008 and confirming conservative justices who Trump nominated by exempting the votes from the filibuster.
If this latter instance of institution-weakening sounds like “two wrongs make a right,” you are right. Unfortunately, given the depth of our current political chasm, both Democrats and Republicans appear ready to twist institutions to achieve short-term policy or political wins. In watching it, one wants to ask, “Where will it end?”
I worry about the weakening of institutions. The trend jeopardizes the institutions that make our democracy possible. Once those institutions are destroyed, it may prove impossible for the American public to reach the consensus necessary to create alternatives. The door could be open to non-democratic government, one where those in power purport to know the will of the people and suppress those who disagree. This is an outcome that nobody wants.
We must cherish and protect our structure of government. Even when it produces frustrating or disappointing outcomes, we need to preserve it. Those who seek to weaken institutions seek to weaken our democracy, even when they claim the opposite.
J.E. Dean is a retired attorney and public affairs consultant writing on politics, government, birds, and occasionally, golden doodles.