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The former president's undermining of core democratic institutions goes deeper than most people realize, sociologist John Campbell argues in his new book.
Sociologist John Campbell became a self-described "newshound" while writing his latest book, an analysis of the long-lasting changes to democratic institutions brought about by former president Donald Trump.
In Institutions Under Siege: Donald Trump's Attack on the Deep State, the Class of 1925 Professor Emeritus examines Trump's damaging influence on core entities of American government and politics, including the Department of Justice, federal court system, government finances, and the Republican Party.
Just a year after he began writing the book, the news cycle around Trump accelerated like never before. Trump was acquitted by the Senate in his first impeachment trial, led the U.S. through an increasingly partisan global pandemic, and then claimed widespread election fraud in his loss to Joe Biden.
"I was reading everything I could, from The New York Times to CNN, and Fox News for some balance," Campbell says. "And of course, at the same time, there were a lot of books being written by journalists, with inside scoops, including interviews with Trump himself. There was more and more material coming out almost every day."
Then, on Jan.6, 2021, insurrectionists stormed the United States Capitol.
"By the time that happened, I had been writing for a while, and it's a terrible way to put it, but it was sort of the icing on the cake. Because the more stuff that came to light, the more it confirmed the arguments I was trying to make."
In a Q&A, Campbell details some of the "rapid and radical" changes Trump made to America's institutions, as well as the qualities of Trump himself that allowed the former president to effect change so swiftly.
Your book sheds light on the pace of institutional change, which you found to be "rapid and radical" under former president Trump. How does Trump's presidency compare to others in this respect?
When sociologists, political scientists, or economists write about institutional change, they find most institutional change is very slow and incremental. It's tinkering at the margins.
Let's take tax reform, for example. Maybe there's a 2% reduction in taxes. That's incremental. Former President Trump comes along and passes one of the largest tax reforms, deepest tax cuts in American history. All the experts agree on that. So, a lot of what he did happened quickly. The tax reform took less than a year for that to take place.
Some other changes took a little bit longer, like politicizing the Department of Justice and the FBI. He did that in less than four years, for sure. But the important point to remember here is that when I'm talking about radical change, it's not just about the speed at which it happened. It also has to do with the severity of the change and how dramatic it was. A 25% tax cut is a lot more severe than a 2% tax cut, for example. And the scope of change, the breadth of change also must be taken into consideration.
The structure of the book is organized around the breadth and scope of the changes Trump brought about. There's a chapter on electoral politics, the insurrection, and the damage he did in transforming the Republican Party into the party of Trump. Then, there are chapters on what he did to undermine the legitimacy and authority of the justice system, civil service bureaucracy, and the budget.
Most presidents don't come anywhere near the breadth of change that Trump did.
Why was Trump able to accelerate institutional change effectively? Was it because the Republicans had control of every branch of government? Or is it something about the man himself and his personality?
Well, part of it is that they had control of the government for two years, certainly. But I think there are two other things that are important here.
First, Trump was really lucky, because he came to power as a result of the accumulation of tipping points, or windows of opportunity. And once in power, he also experienced windows of opportunity of various sorts.
Let's consider the tax cut. If you look at public opinion polls from around that time, Americans' dissatisfaction with the tax code had been rising. And so there was mounting pressure for tax cuts and tax reforms. So this window of opportunity merged with the desires of Republican Party leadership. They, too, had wanted tax cuts for a long time, but for various reasons, hadn't been able to get them. So, Trump gets elected, and these two trends have been building, and boom, there's a moment of opportunity for him at a tipping point.
But you can have a tipping point and that doesn't necessarily mean something's going to happen. It's not just a structural thing, you also must have agency there. That's where Trump and Trump's leadership qualities come into play. He had a set of leadership qualities—some admirable, some not—that he used to take advantage of these tipping points. One of which was the ability to recognize there was a tipping point in the first place.
He also has a tremendous ability to read a crowd and to inspire people. Trump has a TV persona. He knew that if you got the right little catchphrase, you're golden: "Make America Great Again."
So, he was good at that, but he was also narcissistic, and intellectually arrogant. He refused to listen to anybody who would tell him something he didn't like, and if you did, you were fired.
It was a constellation of leadership qualities like these that enabled him, for better or worse, to take advantage of these tipping points when they came along.
One of the interesting things I learned in writing this book is that a lot of people that study the presidency and what presidents are able to do or not do, focus more on the structural possibilities that enable a president to do something. They don't talk so much about the characteristics of the president and their leadership qualities or their personality.
From an academic angle, I tried to bring those two things: the structural and the more agency-oriented pieces of this together, and that balanced the analysis.
You also describe how some entities successfully resisted change. What's an example of an institution that was "spared" during the Trump Administration?
There are some classic examples readers have probably not heard of. One example happened at the Department of Agriculture. It has two top-notch research departments. One studies climate change, and Trump is not a big fan of climate change. But this department kept cranking out study after study that said climate change is real and man-made.
So Trump said, "OK, we can't fire all these people, but we can move their office from Washington, D.C., to Kansas City, Missouri, and see how many of them agree to be transferred." Basically, this was a ploy to gut the research that was being done that he didn't like the sound of.
The offices were moved to Missouri, but not everybody quit. In fact, some people are on the record saying, "The reason I'm not quitting is because I know what he's up to. And I'm not going to stand for it."
For institutions whose authority and legitimacy were undermined, how can they recover?
A lot of damage was done, but we can recover from some of it.
Some of the short-term damage stemmed from personnel decisions. When Trump came to power, he put people in charge of cabinet positions, who were just unbelievably unqualified for their jobs. For example, Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon, was chosen to lead Housing and Urban Development. Now, President Joe Biden comes in and his cabinet is full of more qualified people for these very important jobs.
Lower down in the civil service, for example, there are people who have worked in these agencies for decades doing the nuts and bolts work of government. In many instances, Trump had his top-level appointees get in there and decimate the ranks of the civil service. That is going to take years to fix that problem and replace the institutional knowledge that was lost.
What do you hope readers take away from your book?
One, and probably the most important thing, is that the damage Trump did goes much deeper than most people realize. Most people realize he didn't do great things for the American electoral system, and some people realize maybe he didn't do great things for the Republican Party. But I don't think they realize the damage he's done to the justice system, to America's fiscal situation, to the civil service bureaucracy. It's a lot of damage that could be long-lasting.
The other thing that I hope people understand is that it really matters who gets elected president. Even if you're conservative, even if you're a Republican, you can't necessarily get behind just anybody that comes up the Republican ladder.
There are potential demagogues out there, Authoritarian types. It's not just the United States. We're seeing this in Europe, Sweden, Hungary, France, Italy, you can go down the list. We need to be careful about this.