The most alarming thing about Donald Trump's presidency isn't what he's doing, but how he's doing it.
It's easy to lose sight of this. After all, the Trump era is defined by nothing if not full-tilt constant craziness. So let's soberly take stock of the situation.
I suggested early in Trump's presidency that we break up his behavior into three categories: the normal, the abnormal, and the truly alarming. By now, however, we've seen enough to know that even when his policies are normal, his behavior surrounding them is often truly alarming.
You may not like the policies actively pursued by Paul Ryan and the rest of the Republican majority in the House, which Trump is backing but not prioritizing himself. You may loathe the travel ban, which (despite my personal dislike for it and what the Fourth Circuit unconvincingly asserts) falls within the realm of permissible presidential policy. You may be worried about Trump's failure to endorse Article 5 of the NATO charter (though this merely builds on a breakdown in the alliance that was already well underway). You may believe these policy shifts are terribly ill-considered and unwise, which in most cases I think they are. But they are also policies that can be changed down the road, even if the damage can't be completely undone.
What's more fundamental than policy, however, and what's much more difficult if not impossible to reverse, is not what Trump has been doing, but how he's been doing it. That is what is potentially destabilizing to our country's regime.
The term "regime" comes from Aristotle. It refers to the constellation of norms, practices, habits, mores, institutions, and expectations that prevail in a political community. It's how we do things politically — not just the Constitution but the range of extra-constitutional structures that have evolved over time, guiding and constraining the actions of elected and appointed officials in a slew of ways that most of us take largely for granted.
Take foreign policy. The Constitution bestows considerable powers on the president in foreign affairs, giving him greater freedom to act in this area than in any other. Yet in practice presidents don't devise foreign policy in isolation. Far from it. They consult with a range of experts at the State Department, the Defense Department, the CIA, the NSA, and numerous other departments and agencies across the executive branch — many of which prepare elaborate briefings for the president and his top White House advisers. Often these include intelligence acquired clandestinely and analyzed by specialists in areas of the world from which the intelligence has been gathered.
Which is to say that the formulation of foreign policy in the United States (as in other liberal democratic regimes throughout the world) is an elaborate, rationalized process. The president, his advisers, and Cabinet picks set the broad agenda, but the policy is devised in concert with dozens if not hundreds of people, and it is pursued consistently across different departments and agencies, and in embassies across the globe. If a president comes into office hoping to improve relations with Russia, for example — as both George W. Bush and Barack Obama did — the policymaking bureaucracies will respond accordingly.
But that isn't what President Trump is doing. He's not attempting yet again to reset U.S.-Russian relations by adjusting American foreign policy. What he's doing, instead, is overturning the policymaking process itself.
Trump won't listen to briefings. He's not hiring people to staff the bureaucracies. His secretary of state won't make himself available to the press. There is no effort at all to put out a unified message. The secretary of state sounds like a hard-nosed foreign policy realist. The U.N. ambassador talks like a neocon. The national security adviser asserts that the president endorsed Article 5 when he clearly did not. And Jared Kushner, a senior adviser to the president and his son-in-law, allegedly sought to set up a way for Trump and the Kremlin to communicate privately and secretively, beyond the detection and monitoring of the U.S. government altogether.
But okay, you might say: Is this really so bad? Hasn't the foreign policy establishment made horrific mistakes over the decades? Think of Vietnam. The failure to thwart the September 11 attacks. The invasion and occupation of Iraq. The Libyan intervention. Should we really be horrified by an effort to bypass the people and institutions responsible for all of these and so many other errors?
The answer is: Yes, we very much should be horrified — because as bad as these blunders were, they could have been far, far worse.
Trump isn't some philosopher-king or world-historical Great Statesman whose manifest wisdom will guide him toward furthering American interests and securing the nation's common good. He's a stupefyingly ignorant man who worships money and power, full stop. That's why Trump wants to circumvent and short-circuit the policymaking process — because he wants the freedom to strike enriching and empowering "deals" with such likeminded authoritarians as the Saudi royal family, Rodrigo Duterte, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Vladimir Putin. Those are Trump's natural allies and role models — just as democratically elected officials who are hemmed in by established bureaucratic processes are Trump's natural rivals and opponents.
That's because bureaucratic processes constrain and elevate the thinking and actions of public servants, adding an element of reason, reflection, deliberation, and knowledge to their decision-making. Instead of forging policies that primarily or exclusively benefit themselves, democratically elected officials work to advance broader public goods. This is what Aristotle would say distinguishes a decent regime from a sordid one — a regime in which an elite rules at least partially and imperfectly for the sake of the common good from one in which an elite rules primarily or exclusively to enrich and empower itself.
Less than five months into the Trump era, it's clear that the president is working to effect precisely this kind of regime change in the United States. Whether the effort succeeds will depend not only on how far he's able to push the change but also on whether the change gets consolidated — on whether Trump's blatantly corrupt and highly personalistic way of governing becomes accepted as the new American normal.
If we get to that point, regime change will be complete.