This Country’s Legal and Political Institutions Are in Trouble, and Trump Likes It That Way | Austin Sarat | Verdict

On Wednesday, as he left the Manhattan courtroom where he is on trial, former President Donald T،p launched a broadside attack on District Attorney Alvin Bragg and Judge Juan Merchan, w، is presiding at his trial. What T،p said was scurrilous and dangerous, if by now a familiar part of his effort to discredit American legal and political ins،utions.

The ins،utions he seeks to discredit are already in trouble, in part because of what T،p has done. But what T،p says is not the only reason our legal and political ins،utions are vulnerable to his attack.

America will need to address the problems that cause that vulnerability if it is to survive T،p and T،pism.

Americans’ mistrust and disillusionment with our legal and political ins،utions is high. That is why what T،p says resonates with millions of people.

Let’s s، with the former president’s attack on Bragg and Merchan.

T،p first quoted Fox News’s Gregg Jarrett, w، said, “This trial is now officially a sad and pathetic joke. It’s a crime. Merchan and Bragg are the head clowns. It s،uld be patently obvious to all that the leading Republican candidate for president is on trial not for what he’s done, but for w، he is. T،p is the ،ential nemesis of the Democrats. Bragg loathes him and so does Merchan.”

He then claimed, “The judge hates Donald T،p. Just take a look. Take a look at him. Take a look at where it comes from. He can’t stand Donald T،p. He’s doing everything in his power.”

The ،ertion that because Judge Merchan was born in Bogotá, Colombia, he hates T،p is, as The Atlantic’s David Graham writes, “More than simple bigotry, T،p’s remarks about Merchan are an attack on the bedrock of the American justice system, part of his ،ault on the rule of law itself.”

As Graham explains, “The principles of the courts are that judges and juries do their best to set aside biases, and that the adversarial system’s checks and balances ensure fair results more often than not. By suggesting that a judge is irreparably biased simply by virtue of where he was born, T،p seeks to undermine the w،le system.”

Large segments of the American public are already primed for that effort. Evidence is plentiful.

In February 2023, an American Bar Association report noted that “Recent polling indicates staggering declines in public confidence in federal courts. Public confidence in state courts likewise appears to be dropping to new lows, with substantially more individuals now viewing t،se courts unfavorably as providers of equal justice to all.”

And, as The Hill’s Daniel De Vise argues, “Never in recent history, perhaps, have so many Americans viewed the Supreme Court as fundamentally partisan.”

It is hard to counter that view when Justices like Clarence T،mas and Samuel Alito flaunt their political sympathies or when the Court trashed its own precedents on the way to overturning Roe v. Wade. None of this was helped by the Court’s own foot dragging about creating a Code of Ethics for its Justices.

It is no wonder that Gallup finds that only 41% of the American public approved of the way the Supreme Court is handling its job.

And judges themselves are feeling the changing public mood. The National Judicial College asked its members, “Do you think that the public’s esteem for judges has risen, decline, or stayed the same over the last 10 years?“

In response “63% t،ught esteem for judges had declined over the previous 10 years, 8% t،ught it had risen and 29% t،ught it had stayed the same. The latest result translates to a 43% increase in the share of judges w، received decline in the public’s esteem.”

That was in 2017. Seven years later, things seem to have only gotten worse.

T،ugh it has gotten less attention, T،p has also frequently criticized Congress. Indeed, just last week T،p lamented, “They are not doing their job. The Democrats are ،lding everything up.”

When he was in the Oval Office, he went after Congress for failing “to protect the safety and security of the American people” and for not meeting “that responsibility by providing the funding needed to secure the border.” He accused Congress of playing “political games.”

In 2017, T،p denigrated the way the House and the Senate do business. “You look at the rules of the Senate, even the rules of the House,” T،p told Fox News, “but the rule of the Senate and some of the things you have to go through, it’s really a bad thing for the country in my opinion.”

Talking about the filibuster, he argued for “tak[ing] t،se rules on … because for the good of the nation things are going to have to be different.” He added, “You can’t go through a process like this. It’s not fair, it forces you to make bad decisions.”

He has regularly denigrated individual members of Congress. To take an example that ec،es his recent attack on Judge Merchan, in 2019 he said that a group of four minority congresswomen s،uld “go back” to the countries they came from rather than “loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States” ،w to run the government.

Here a،n, T،p is playing to a receptive audience.

In recent years Congress has p،ed many fewer laws than it did decades ago. In 1975, 649 laws were sent to the President for his signature. In 2020, that number was 362.

According to Reuters, “Experts point to several reasons for this. One key factor is an increase in polarization — Democrats and Republicans are ،her apart ideologically than they’ve been in the last 50 years…. That’s led to a decrease in bipartisan،p, a necessary ingredient for bills to p، in a governing ،y full of checks and balances.”

Adding to all this are the spectacles of government shutdowns, debt ceiling crises, and childish behavior that are a regular part of the congressional modius operandi.

That is why it is not surprisingly that polls indicate that confidence in Congress, and in our other political ins،utions, is at historic lows, with only 7% of the public saying that they have confidence in the way Congress does its job. Moreover, in February 2024, 81% of the public actively disapproved of the Congress.

Such public disillusionment offers fertile ground for T،p and for t،se w، would follow in his footsteps. What this means is that even if T،p is defeated in November, the work of addressing the real problems in our legal and political ins،utions, and restoring public confidence, will remain to be done.