It went by largely without notice, but about a month ago, Donald Trump’s administration lost a court fight in the 9th Circuit. The president did not take the news well, declaring after the ruling that the American judicial system is “broken and unfair.”
This kind of rhetoric may not be unusual for Trump, but it is unusual for the United States: we don’t generally see national leaders take deliberate steps to undermine public confidence in their own country’s courts. For this president, however, it’s become quite common.
Similarly, as a Washington Post analysis noted the other day, Trump has adopted a related posture toward federal law enforcement.
[Trump’s finger-pointing] takes a page from authoritarians, such as Russian President Vladimir Putin, who systematically seek to sow doubt about democratic institutions that might stand in their way.
“I think it’s a disgrace what’s happening in our country,” Trump said Friday when asked about release of the memo from Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee claiming abuses in the Russia investigation. “A lot of people should be ashamed of themselves and much worse than that,” Trump told reporters.
The president’s latest confrontation assails the credibility and impartiality of the nation’s justice system, or at least the part connected to the ongoing investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and potentially improper links between Trump associates and the Russian government.
It came on the heels of the president declaring via Twitter, “The top Leadership and Investigators of the FBI and the Justice Department have politicized the sacred investigative process in favor of Democrats and against Republicans – something which would have been unthinkable just a short time ago.”
The argument was plainly ridiculous for all sorts of reasons, but Trump nevertheless felt comfortable suggesting to the public that Americans shouldn’t necessarily trust top officials at the FBI and the Justice Department. (The fact that this president appointed the top officials at the FBI and the Justice Department is apparently a detail Trump forgot.)
Jon Chait noted this morning, “Cultivating distrust in institutions that are designed to play a neutral, mediating role is one of the central functions of conservative politics.” That’s especially true of Donald Trump’s politics – because he wants and expects to be the sole authority on truth.
Indeed, it’s become a staple of the Trump presidency. As we’ve discussed befoire, the White House isn’t exactly subtle about its vision: Don’t trust news organizations. Don’t trust the courts. Don’t trust pollsters. Don’t trust U.S. intelligence agencies. Don’t trust unemployment numbers. Don’t even trust election results.
The list, however, keeps growing. The FBI is suspect. So is the Justice Department. So are climate scientists. So are medical professionals who aren’t comfortable with regressive GOP health care plans. It’s becoming difficult to think of a public institution this president hasn’t denigrated in some way.
Some Republicans are actually inclined to go along with this style of authoritarian thinking. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), the chairman of the House Science Committee, last year advised Americans “to get your news directly from the president. In fact, it might be the only way to get the unvarnished truth.”
He wasn’t kidding. A year later, Smith’s assessment seems to summarize the White House’s posture eerily well.