There is something pleasingly revolutionary in the upending of institutions, be they the “establishment,” the “patriarchy,” or the Founding Fathers. Witness the viral crowds making their righteous way through the nation’s downtowns, dragging statues of Confederates on horseback in their wake. Indeed, the current revolutionary vogue is little different from its French revolutionary Jacobin forebears, enjoying its own mini-reign of terror over America’s Karens and their witless AR-15-wielding husbands. What too many miss, however, is that among those Jacobins is The Donald himself, president of the United States and the bane of institutions wherever he finds them.
Institutions, classical-liberal types are wont to lecture, are the pillars of democracy. Why has the United States survived a Civil War at home, the Vietnam War abroad, a sexual predator in the White House, and now Donald Trump? Because our institutions are strong, our Constitution remains a touchstone 233 years after it was signed, and most Americans respect — more or less — the rules, if not always the rule-makers, of our society. Consider, after all, the opposite.
Filching from Louis XIV (who, to be fair, had nicked the idea from pretty much every successful leader before him), the dictators of the world live by one rule alone: L’état, c’est moi. For the Francophobes among you, “The state, it is I.” To them, laws are for losers, and from Louis himself to Mussolini to Hitler to Stalin to Assad and many more, such dictators are the state. Rules don’t apply to them, nor to their cronies. It’s a tough way to live if you’re not the king, because you never know what might happen. This, Thomas Jefferson might have said, is why we like the Bill of Rights.
Similarly, those in the business of democracy-building whether in Washington or among our allies are fond of underscoring the importance of “institution building.” They are the antithesis of arbitrary rulers and their capricious fiat. Courts, election systems, public schools, constitutions, alliances, the military, the police — these are among the many sorts of institutions that underpin a functioning democracy, providing, of course, that they serve the system and not one man (see Louis, above). They are in many ways the safeguard of that democracy, because they are universally understood to be immutable no matter who sits in the White House, the Élysée Palace, or 10 Downing Street.
Can institutions be evil or wrong? Certainly, they can. The institution of slavery was wrong. The Inquisition was a bad idea. Few remember the Gestapo fondly. There are plenty of examples. But in a resilient democracy that believes, almost religiously, in its own capacity for self-improvement, evil institutions can go by the wayside, their founding ideas tossed on the ash heap of history. So it was in America with slavery, the second-class status of women and minorities, and more.
In a democracy, or a gathering of democracies, institutions themselves are little more than their component parts. The World Bank wouldn’t be a bank without the contributions of its members. Ditto the United Nations. Public school systems. The House of Representatives. The police. The president. These things exist because we as a nation, or we as its citizens, choose for it to be so. We are not powerless in these United States, neither at home nor on the global stage. Those who do not like Donald Trump can vote for Joe Biden in November. Those who don’t approve of their school superintendent or their representative in the House or their mayor can do the same. Obama said it: “We are the change that we seek.” Bashar al Assad and Vladimir Putin never say that.
But the neo-Jacobins among us are not satisfied with being “the change”; they are not reformers. They are destroyers, and proud ones at that. Any doubter need only reflect on the prevalence of the “defund the police” movement that grew in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. Or the less important, but equally symbolic, assaults on public monuments that are under attack in cities across the nation. For these people, the institutions of our democracy are a waste of time. The police cannot be reformed; they must be destroyed. Same for the “patriarchy,” naysayers, and anyone else deemed afoul of the mob.
Ironically, Donald Trump brings the same spirit to his presidency as the “defund the police” crowd. Law enforcement isn’t in his gun sights, but plenty of other institutions are. Rather than fix the World Health Organization — an organization in Beijing’s thrall because its members have allowed it — Trump simply pulled the United States out. Many fear that his reported desire to pull out of NATO — something resisted by most in his administration — will come to fruition in a second term.
Revolutionaries have their place in this world: Who could begrudge the people of Iraq tearing down a statue of Saddam Hussein or the people of Romania tossing the Communist Nicolae Ceausescu from office? Who would deny the justice in the Founding Fathers’ revolt against King George? In each place there was no legal means of redress against an oppressive and unjust system. But that’s not the modern United States, which offers its citizens a pathway to reform even the most hated of institutions.
Those on either the left or right who confuse America with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or Ceausescu’s Romania would do well to remember the trajectory of the original Jacobins of the French Revolution: After instituting the Reign of Terror, during which they sent thousands of their opponents to the guillotine, many of them were themselves guillotined in an orgy of self-destruction, leading ultimately to the rise of Napoleon, pan-European wars, and the eventual re-establishment of the very institutions the Jacobins set out to destroy.