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We Blew It

Our Government Is Weaker Than Ever. Trump Is Licking His Chops.

It’s not just the Supreme Court. All three branches of government are in even worse shape than four years ago.

Donald Trump
Win McNamee/Getty Images

A month ago, the consensus in legal and political circles was that the Supreme Court was on the verge of a grand bargain. The justices would rule—likely unanimously, albeit on grounds they would have to invent—that individual states could not remove Donald Trump from the ballot. Then, weeks later, they would reject his claim that he should be immune from prosecution for acts he committed as president, paving the way for a federal criminal trial this summer related to his efforts to overturn the 2020 election. How the court would get there, in either case, was unclear. But given Chief Justice John Roberts’s concerns about the court’s legitimacy, an outcome that allowed Trump to stay on the ballot but forced a preelection verdict on his role in the January 6 insurrection made sense: Voters would have all the necessary information at their disposal to decide if Trump was fit to be president again.

Over the past week, it has become clear that this was a fantasy. Last Wednesday, the court finally scheduled oral arguments on Trump’s immunity argument—for late April, likely pushing a ruling into mid-June (or even July) and thus possibly delaying a criminal trial until after the November election. And then, on Monday, the court issued a sweeping ruling affirming that Colorado cannot remove Trump from the ballot. The decision was hardly surprising. But five conservative justices, including Roberts, went much further than many had expected, shredding the Fourteenth Amendment—which disqualifies candidates who engaged in insurrection from holding federal office—in the process. Far from using the two cases to shore up the court’s legitimacy, Roberts and the conservative justices have once again provided a reminder of its rank partisanship—and handed Trump two giant victories.

The Trump presidency was defined in part by institutional rot and delegitimization. As he and his allies attacked the government from within, there were nearly daily reminders of the frailty of our institutions and of just how much of American political life was held together by norms that were ill equipped to handle authoritarianism. That the government held together amid the lengthy political and legal—and ultimately violent—attempt to overturn the 2020 election owed as much to luck as it did to anything else. Biden’s 2020 campaign was built, among other things, on a promise to rebuild those institutions. The Supreme Court decisions of the last week are just the latest reminder that quite the opposite has happened: Our political and legal institutions have continued to devolve thanks to a mix of inaction from Democrats and hostility from Republicans.

The current Congress is one of the least effective in American history. Its Republican membership and leadership has, since Trump’s rise, steadily been replaced with MAGA acolytes and loyalists. Although Republicans in Congress hardly served as a bulwark against Trump’s excesses, it’s abundantly clear now that, with Mike Johnson’s ascension to House speaker and Mitch McConnell’s decision to step down as the Senate GOP leader at the end of this Congress, a second-term Trump would have lackeys in most key positions. And in contrast to his first term, he would have few outspoken Republican critics; Justin Amash, Liz Cheney, Jeff Flake, and Bob Corker have already lost primary challenges or retired.

Trump is not making a secret of his plan to destroy America’s civil service. Project 2025, the Heritage Foundation’s blueprint for a second Trump presidency, calls for firing tens of thousands of longtime government workers and replacing them with loyalists. In spite of this, there have been few efforts to protect the federal workforce. As a candidate, Biden promised to rebuild a “hollowed out” government, but he has largely failed to do so. Despite a mandate to strengthen the federal workforce in 2021, the administration has struggled to fill positions left empty by the Trump administration, thanks in part to the strong labor market. “Over the last few years, many federal agencies have lost highly skilled workers in a variety of mission critical areas, which has made it more difficult for the federal government to accomplish its mission,” the Office of Personnel Management said in a statement last January.

Despite staffing troubles, the White House has attempted to “Trump proof” the federal workforce. Last September, the administration enacted a rule that would, in theory, block a second Trump administration from firing thousands of federal workers. The only problem is that Trump could simply use the same rulemaking process to reverse that rule. Without federal legislation, more substantial protections for federal workers are unlikely.

And then, of course, there’s the Supreme Court. Biden has refused to even consider any form of judicial reform—whether it be expansion, term limits, or something else—in response to a corrupt, far-right court that has consistently shredded long-standing precedent (and, in the case of Monday’s decision, the Constitution itself). Biden has repeatedly attacked the naked partisanship and corruption of what he has called the “rogue court” throughout his administration. Last summer, in a press conference after the Supreme Court ended affirmative action protection, he said, “This is not a normal court.” But Biden resisted calls for any reform that could make it more normal. Shortly after those comments, Biden told MSNBC, “I think if we start the process of trying to expand the court, we’re going to politicize it maybe forever in a way that is not healthy,” and expressed hope it would somehow change on its own.

Whether Biden could have shored up America’s “hollowed out” institutions is not clear. It certainly would have been difficult. Supreme Court reform, in particular, was always a long shot, given that Senate Democrats didn’t have the votes to overcome a filibuster (and Senator Joe Manchin declared he wouldn’t kill the filibuster). But Biden foreclosed that option. In other areas, he was perhaps too slow to use his bully pulpit: It wasn’t until 2022 that he urged Senate Democrats to scrap the filibuster to pass a suite of voting reforms that Republicans had blocked multiple times the year before. Those reforms would have protected voters from being unlawfully “purged,” restricted the removal of election officials, and imposed a judicial ethics code on the Supreme Court, among many other measures. But Biden’s plea was ignored.

With time ticking down on Biden’s first term, our core institutions feel less equipped to resist a Trump presidency than they did four years ago. And Trump, should he win in November, undoubtedly would be more unchained than before. During his first term, we heard often about how “adults in the room” supposedly constrained him from within the administration—Cabinet-level officials like James Mattis and Rex Tillerson who prevented Trump from carrying out his worst impulses, or at least lessened the damage. Their influence was likely overblown by the media (and themselves), but it’s clear that such figures would have no place in a second Trump administration. He would surround himself with yes-men. In fact, if he does return to power, Trump won’t have to do much to win the war on government he launched nearly eight years ago. Between the Supreme Court’s conservative majority, Republican leaders in Congress, and his White House coterie, all three branches of government would be ready to do his bidding.