Because Trump is so temperamentally ill-suited to the presidency and lacks the policy knowledge to push intelligently for change, applauding institutional resistance to his agenda (in the courts, in the intelligence community, in the White House itself) can seem like the unproblematically patriotic thing to do. But what if the president were competent, knowledgeable, and even-keeled? Would he have been permitted to improve relations with Putin instead of pushed to arm Ukraine? Would he have been allowed to distance the U.S. from NATO instead of reaffirming our commitment to fight a war over countries in Russia’s near-abroad? Would he have been supported in his efforts to admit fewer immigrants to the country?
Or are all of these issues, and many others, now considered locked in, inevitable, immobile — with the effort to adjust them presumed to be off-limits?
If this is the position of those who work within the institutions of the federal government (and especially the executive branch), that portends an ominous future. Denying the democratic will doesn’t necessarily lead that will to dissipate. On the contrary, resistance can provoke it further, leading it to grow more powerful and more radicalized as it begins to view the very institutions of government as the obstacle to getting its way. The hope of avoiding this kind of situation led the early liberals in a much less democratic age to propose elections as a means of ensuring some measure of representation for public opinion in the halls of power. Today our representational expectations are far higher. Democratic institutions are presumed to be permeable and responsive to the popular will. When they aren’t, voters begin to view them as illegitimate.