According to its website, the University of Virginia’s Miller Center exists to “inspire America’s leaders with unbiased insights, especially on the presidency, that advance democratic institutions and the public good.” It “strives to apply the lessons of history and civil discourse to the nation’s most pressing contemporary governance challenges.” It envisions “a nation full of leaders guided by intelligence and driven by an inner need for truth.” And it just appointed Marc Short, late of the Trump Administration, as senior fellow.
Nicole Hemmer, an assistant professor at the Center, has written an intriguing account of her misgivings about that hire: “If I walked through the door, was I complicit in the destructive illiberalism of the Trump administration?” It’s a bracing question, and until recently, probably an unexpected one. In one sense, Short’s post is nothing new: Cushy university fellowships are a common landing place for former government officials. But it makes a mockery of the very kind of political expertise in which the Miller Center specializes to pretend that these appointments are just business as usual. As Hemmer writes: “As political historians and presidential scholars, the people at the Miller Center are particularly well placed to observe that the Trump administration represents a significant rupture in American politics, a break with the general tenets and bulwarks of modern liberal democracy: equal representation, protection of minority voices, respect for the rule of law, a free press and free inquiry […] That the Trump administration is a powerfully illiberal force in the United States today is not a partisan judgment. It is an understanding shared across party and ideological lines.”
Hemmer’s reference to cross-party understandings calls to mind those longstanding political norms which are now the subject of so much discussion, mainly because Trump seems unable to let a day go by without breaking at least a few of them. There’s been something strange about the controversies generated by the Trump Administration’s frequent norm-breaking: Those same institutions and figures which most highly prize unwritten, supposedly bipartisan codes of conduct (including norms of civility) have also been consistently feeble in responding to violations of them. (The Miller Center, for instance, presents one of its key goals as “modeling civil dialogue.”) Harvard’s Institute of Politics, with its stated goal of “encoura[ging] students to examine critically and think creatively about politics and public issues,” awarded a fellowship to Sean Spicer, who needed all of one day working in the Trump White House to become a walking symbol of hackery, cynicism, and dishonesty.
Institutions like these tend to prioritize a benign, pro-public service message that seeks to avoid ideology or partisanship; remaining somewhat aloof from political debate is part of their identity. But norms are meaningless if they can be broken without consequence. Either Trump officials are trashing some of liberal democracy’s fundamental values and breaking core norms of the American political system, or else those values and norms are empty pieties: They may be reassuring to repeat to ourselves, but when genuinely threatened, they turn out to have precious few defenders. Already the most ambitious, reptilian figures of Trumpworld have shown a perverse talent for figuring out which supposedly cherished aspects of American life are protected by little more than cant.
If defenses are to be raised against this aggressive illiberalism, institutions which have until recently enjoyed the luxury of remaining outside the fray will have to overcome their skittishness. They might start by thinking hard about how much exposure to the Trump disaster renders an official ineligible for the kinds of honors they’re in the business of conferring. Some are Republicans who would have emerged as key players under any GOP President, and apparently didn’t consider this one beyond the pale. Some are Trump loyalists with a cultish devotion to their boss; others are toadies, glad to debase themselves for proximity to power. Some were supposed to be the “adults in the room,” preemptively pardoned for joining the Trump Administration on the theory that they were there to contain the childish commander-in-chief. Some seem to be actively squirming under their fiendish boss, leaving the rest of us wondering whether they should resign and send a powerful anti-Trump message, or stay in their position to prevent the appointment of somebody even worse. Do all these figures deserve the same judgment? How can we evaluate their complicity in the worst abuses of this Administration? Now that we find ourselves unhappily confronted with such questions, we could use some assistance from leading scholars of the American political system. Many of them are going to find, in the coming years, that these are not merely academic concerns.