Paul Krugman: We're losing two critical safeguards against despotism in Trump's White House

Without these, our democracy is seriously at risk

Published January 13, 2018 12:30PM (EST)

Paul Krugman                                                                                                                                                                       (Reuters/Anton Golubev)
Paul Krugman (Reuters/Anton Golubev)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.


Donald Trump is not the first mediocre president of the United States, Krugman reminds weary Americans in his Tuesday column. The problem, however, is not only that Trump feels the need to refer to himself as a "very stable genius," but that the president lacks two of the key factors that prevented the previous generations of mediocre men from laying waste to our democracy: first-rate advisers and a functioning system of checks and balances. Congress and the Supreme Court have historically been safety valves protecting the country from the president's worst impulses. Unfortunately, Krugman writes, "under the Very Stable Genius in Chief, the old rules no longer apply."

Ronald Reagan's official Alzheimer's diagnosis came five years after he left office, but the disease may have taken hold during his second term. It's an alarming thought, but Krugman notes, "with James Baker running Treasury and George Shultz running State, one didn’t have to worry about whether qualified people were making the big decisions." Also, he continues, "while we’ve probably had chief executives who longed to jail their critics or enrich themselves while in office, none of them dared act on those desires."

Under Trump, this may no longer be true. Just look at the people he brought into the White House with him. Even though the likes of now-indicted former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn are gone, we're still left with Steven Mnuchin, the thought of whom, Krugman believes, "has Hamilton rolling over in his grave." And that's only one of the higher-profile appointments. In a particularly chilling reminder of what we're dealing with, Krugman writes:

"Many incredibly bad lower-level appointments have flown under the public’s radar. We only get a sense of how bad things are from the occasional story that breaks through, like that of Trump’s nominee to head the Indian Health Service, who appears to have lied about his credentials. (A spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services says a tornado destroyed his employment records.)"

Even worse, the more qualified members of Trump's team are exiting in droves: "There has been a huge exodus of experienced personnel at the State Department; perhaps even more alarming, there is reportedly a similar exodus at the National Security Agency."

Checks and balances appear to be fleeing the scene, too. The GOP may have cared during Watergate, Krugman writes, "but these days they clearly see their job as being one of protecting the V.S.G.’s [Very Stable Genius] privileges, of letting him do whatever he wants."

Republican leadership is only too happy to do Trump's bidding. "Until now," Krugman recalls, "it wasn’t entirely clear whether pro-cover-up members of Congress, like Devin Nunes, who has been harassing the Justice Department as it attempts to investigate Russian election interference, were freelancing. But Paul Ryan, the House speaker, has now fully taken Nunes’s side, in effect going all in on obstruction."

Even worse, "two Republican senators made the first known congressional referral for criminal charges related to Russian intervention — not against those who may have worked with a hostile foreign power, but against the former British spy who prepared a dossier about possible Trump-Russia collusion."

The people who should be protecting Americans from the president's worst impulses are only encouraging them. Krugman leaves us on a bitter note: "We spent more than two centuries building a great nation, and even a very stable genius probably needs a couple of years to complete its ruin."

By Ilana Novick

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