Plenty of ink has been spilled on whether President Trump broke the election, or even the presidency as a whole, but that is just a small part of the story of the past four years.
Mr. Trump’s tenure turned into a fundamental stress test for all the institutions of American democracy: the courts, the Congress, the administrative agencies within the executive branch, the states and even the press.
The results aren’t encouraging.
Political practitioners and analysts said most institutions bent during Mr. Trump’s time in office, and some of them broke.
“Generally speaking, I think we failed our country,” said former Rep. James R. Moran, a Democrat who represented Virginia for 14 years before retiring in 2015. “There are exceptions, but by and large we didn’t close out this reality show with much of anything gained and much lost.”
Even before this month’s assault on Capitol Hill, the debate had been raging over what academics labeled shortcomings that Mr. Trump had exposed, and where blame should lie.
“I give most of them in one way or another low grades,” said James W. Ceaser, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. “I don’t know whether I’d flunk them, but low grades.”
Of all the institutions, the one the analysts said came off the worst over the past few years was the press, with television networks, papers and websites chasing lowest common denominator entertainment value in their news coverage.
“They get an F,” the professor said.
Michael McKenna, a former top legislative aide in the Trump White House, said the combination of Mr. Trump and the press accelerated a long decline.
“At this point, I don’t know of a single human being in this country who doesn’t completely understand the biases inherent in the media,” he said.
But Congress didn’t do much better in the analysts’ estimation.
Even before the coronavirus chaos of 2020, Capitol Hill was on track for one of the least productive four-year periods on record over the past 75 years, dating back to the end of World War II.
What time the legislature was in session was absorbed with fights over the president’s words and actions.
“The legislative branch has let us down terribly, and the two-party system has let us down,” said Mr. Moran, who said Republicans and Democrats are no longer opposing parties but warring camps, leaving a chasm where reaching consensus is stunningly difficult.
“Their activity towards Trump was outside the normal relationship between a president and Congress,” he said. “They never really reconciled themselves to the fact that he was elected.”
Deep state resistance
Lawmakers came up with evolving reasons for why they wouldn’t work with Mr. Trump on his agenda, Mr. Ceaser said, beginning with now-punctured theories about Russian conspiracies and ending with accusations of racism.
The political scientist saw that same mentality seep into the administrative state, too.
“They carried resistance to the extreme,” he said. “From everything that’s come out, it was a disgrace how they acted.”
The level of resistance raises big questions about the role of a president and the bureaucracy he inherits. It’s built into the equation that the administrative state acts as a brake, he said, but there has to be a line at some point.
“The question is whether an elected president is allowed to be a disruptor, and what’s the penalty for being a disruptor,” Mr. Ceaser said. “They’re going to fight back, and he has to get control and it isn’t easy. I would say they went too far.”
Mr. Moran, though, praised some of the longtime civil servants at the upper ranks of the agencies — the “deep state” — who he said kept the ship afloat.
“We needed them during this period of upheaval,” the former congressman said. “The deep state held.”
But even there, he said, damage was done. Many of those folks are eligible for retirement. Plenty of others will soon be eligible. Replenishing their ranks will be difficult, particularly given the view of government service Mr. Trump has fostered across the political spectrum.
‘Never going back’
What accomplishments Mr. Trump did notch, he often did so despite opposition from within.
Both Mr. McKenna and Mr. Ceaser pointed to the president’s insistence that the U.S. follow through on a long-standing federal law and move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, despite doomsday warnings from the foreign policy establishment.
“All that stuff’s out the window. The State Department’s shattered,” said Mr. McKenna, who now pens a column for The Washington Times. “They’ve been wrong on everything, and he’s been right on everything.”
He also credited Mr. Trump with smashing the two reigning political dynasties, the Bushes and the Clintons, with his 2016 election. He defeated a member of each family en route to the White House.
Mr. McKenna said Mr. Trump expanded the political conversation, legitimizing opinions on both ends of the spectrum that before would have been swept aside.
The range of acceptable political conversation in America is now much broader than it was four years ago,” he said. “For some people, that makes them nervous.
“We’re never going back,” he added.
If any institution showed a level of immunity to the president, it was the courts.
On immigration alone, attempts to rewrite the DACA program, set up new rules for the asylum system, and impose stricter requirements on migrants being self-sufficient all fell victim to procedural law challenges.
Similar fates befell environmental and labor policies, too.
Mr. Moran said the implications of a failed stress test go beyond America’s borders.
He recalled a conversation with a friend in Europe who advises foreign governments. His friend reported there was genuine concern over America’s failure to properly adjust and grapple with the Trump effect and a growing sense of foreboding that a country so economically successful, so diverse in its population and so at the heart of the world order had stumbled.
Mr. Moran echoed his friend.
“We have let the rest of the world down,” the former congressman said. “We needed more responsible leadership.”