Institutional Government

In less politically correct times we used to refer derisively to “banana republics.”  Originally applied narrowly to a certain type of Central American country overly dependent on fruit exports, the term later was used more broadly to refer to countries that nominally take the form of constitutional democracies, but that lack the institutions and political cultures to sustain them.   As a result, they typically are run by autocratically-inclined rulers elected by populist forces motivated by empty talk of national greatness.  They maintain legislatures and courts, but these are not effective in reining in the impulses of the caudillo.  The most powerful families and companies live in symbiosis with the autocrat (who they despise), dispensing flattery and political support in return for protection of their interests. 

This type of politics is a tragedy for the citizens of these unhappy countries, but – because the “banana republic” countries usually matter so little – they became fodder for jokes, parodies, and satirical novels.  The United States is not a banana republic, but in some respects, it has started to behave like one.  Unlike Honduras and its ilk, America matters a great deal, and as a consequence, the world is not laughing.

The critical distinction between a mature nation-state (whether a democracy or not) and a banana republic is institutional government.   In a mature state, the political and governmental institutions are strong and high functioning.  The political process for decision making may be messy, but once decisions are made they can be communicated and relied on as the position of the government.   National policies and priorities have broad continuity over time, regardless of changes in political control.  Institutional government is like a supertanker – newly elected politicians may push the rudder hard to port or starboard, but the ship turns slowly. Standing bureaucracies assure that politicians, holding temporary power only, make decisions armed with the best information and analysis arising from a sprawling government.  This stability and coherence is what allows a country with strong institutions to lead.   

Events of the past two weeks illustrate the extent to which our long tradition of institutional government has been abandoned.   On Thursday our special representative in charge of the talks for Afghan reconciliation stated that the United States was committed to the fight in Afghanistan: “the United States will stand with the government and the people of Afghanistan.” On Friday morning, Trump, without informing our Afghan allies in advance, announced the drawdown of our troops.   

With respect to Syria, the National Security Advisor said “we’re not going to leave” and the Department of Defense reassured our allies that we are “continuing operations” and “remain committed.”  A few days later Trump announced by tweet that the U.S. was withdrawing its troops from Syria.   Congress, the State Department, and the Pentagon all are reported to have been “blindsided.”  The Secretary of Defense resigned, still smarting at not having been informed before his impulsive boss announced our cancellation of the Iranian nuclear deal, suspension of joint military exercises with South Korea, or creation of a sixth branch (the “Space Force”) of the U.S. military.   

Banana republic:  impulsive rule by a single autocrat.  Lack of institutional deliberation and process. 

Michael Lewis’s meticulous reporting in Fifth Risk reveals that the executive branch of the federal government is led by a man with no knowledge of, interest in, or need for, the institution which he leads.   Even Steve Bannon, proponent of the “deconstruction of the administration state,” said of Trump’s attitude toward the government he is supposed to be running: “Holy fuck, this guy doesn’t know anything.  And he doesn’t give a shit.” 

Lewis details the President’s failure to fill vacancies, to appoint persons with relevant skills or experience, or to set policy agendas at the department or agency level.   Lewis’s reporting makes clear that while this approach to governing results in large part from not “giv[ing] a shit,” another part results from deliberate vandalism.  Trump wants the institutions of government to get out of his way.  When he does make appointments, the most relevant credential (other than personal loyalty to Trump) appears to be a declared dedication to dismantling or undermining the missions of the agencies they would serve. 

The American right, as a political strategy, has long stoked anger against the Federal government.    GOP candidates competed to list all the departments and agencies they would eliminate.   We’ll get rid of the IRS, the EPA, the Departments of Energy, Education, and Commerce.  It was all good fun, “playing to the base.”  No one took it seriously.  But now it has happened.  We still have these departments and agencies, but they have been gutted and neutered.  Donald’s dream has come true:  there is only Trump.

The President swears to defend the constitution and to “faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States.”  This includes, as the particular duty of the President, to ensure the staffing, management, and effective functioning of the executive branch.   The institutions of the executive branch are mostly established by law.  Their missions and functions are not optional.  

No one reading Fifth Risk could conclude that Trump has “faithfully executed” his office.  Most GOP congressmen know he hasn’t and also know they have a constitutional duty to do something about it. Republican businessmen and financiers, who held their noses and accepted the farcical con-man in return for tax breaks and regulatory reform, now know they put the republic in peril. 

Banana republic:  the political and commercial establishment lives in symbiosis with the autocrat (who they despise), dispensing flattery and political support in return for favors and commercial opportunity