Why Donald Trump Clashing With His Own Institutions Will Have Major Consequences

His behaviour during the recent Kremlin leak scandal signals problems ahead, but have the USA's democratic institutions become too weak to stop this tinpot dictator?
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One of the few things that can be said with certainty about Donald Trump is that there has never been an American President like him. With his narcissism, petulance and bluster, he outstrips even inglorious predecessors like George W. Bush for unsuitability. In fact, he much more closely resembles an old-fashioned, developing world dictator than a leader of a great democratic nation.

It is staggering to see a US President about to take office who favours the secret police of a long-standing enemy state (Russia’s former KGB, no less) over his own country’s security services. Last week, in true tinpot dictator style, he loudly compared the US intelligence agencies he is about to lead to “Nazi Germany” for supposedly leaking a report about his links to Russia. Which is to be expected. Some of his far right advisors and supporters probably do think that leaking unflattering documents is worse than anything the Nazis did.

Trump’s hysterical response to the report diminished his credibility further and probably reflects his fears that the net is closing in. As has repeatedly been said in the media, the report is “unverifiable”. But that is not the same as saying it is all untrue. As a former British diplomat in Moscow, there is plenty in it that looks plausible to me, including the general depiction of the Russian regime’s methods of operation.

Even if the report (allegedly compiled by a former British intelligence agent and published on Buzzfeed) turns out not to be a smoking gun, it seems likely that there is more information to come on Trump’s collusion with the Kremlin. For a man who claims not to be in hock to Russia, he is doing a convincing impression of someone who is. One of the few consistent elements of Trump’s campaign and post-victory conduct is his praise for and prioritising of the Russian regime over his own country. It is hard to think of another credible reason for this other than the Kremlin having a hold over him. Nor is Putin as subtle as he likes to believe or as astute a tactician as he is often portrayed. His inability to avoid smugness and the Russians’ behaviour during this entire affair also strongly suggest something untoward.

As well as the concern that the world’s most powerful democracy might be about to inaugurate a President who is under the influence of one its most dangerous dictatorships, Trump’s character continues to be deeply worrying. His breathtaking arrogance about his own infallibility and superiority, and his regular crude threats against opponents and journalists, are classic dictatorial traits.

These character flaws and the fact that Trump appears to have more skeletons in his closet than “The Addams Family” make it certain that the incoming President will clash with the US’s democratic institutions. Starting by going to war against his own intelligence services is not a good idea (see this superb blast from the sober and sensible Brookings Institution for an explanation). No President has ever come to power looking more likely to be impeached and not complete his term in office.

In the meantime, Americans, and the rest of us, had better hope that their democratic institutions are up to the job of dealing with Trump. The US’ “separation of powers” between the President, Congress and the Supreme Court was expressly designed by the nation’s founders to provide checks and balances against any individual gaining absolute power. A historically fierce attachment to freedom of the press is another crucial aspect of this system. But these institutions are not as strong as they once were. Supreme Court judge appointments are now highly politicised. The boundaries of many seats in Congress have been fixed to make them ultra-safe for one party. This problem is particularly pronounced on the Republican side. It makes their Congressmen beholden to the hardcore party activists and financiers who select candidates, rather than the wider electorate and the national interest. Much of the media, in search of ratings and clicks, has been far too indulgent of Trump and the compelling, car-crash spectacle he provides.

This corrosion of America’s democratic infrastructure is extremely worrying because there are previous examples of democratic institutions proving too weak to defy a demagogue. In this sense at least, the Nazis seizure of power in 1930s Germany really is a valid comparison.