President Donald Trump wants to uncover and punish the anonymous author of the New York Times op-ed that claims senior administration officials have formed a “resistance” movement intent of thwarting an unstable and dangerous president. The op-ed, and Trump’s reaction to it, put U.S. democracy in a unique position on the spectrum between Europe’s coalition-driven governance and authoritarianism as practiced, for example, in Russia.
The writer claims to be a senior administration official working with other “adults in the room” to frustrate parts of Trump’s “agenda and his worst inclinations.” Stealthy insurgencies by bureaucratic means are pretty standard in the U.S. By contrast, open expressions of dissent by members of government and even sometimes personal attacks against a political leader are not particularly unusual in Europe.
U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May has put up with the open criticism of Brexit supporters in her government. Even though the U.K. Conservatives aren’t strictly speaking a coalition, the party is divided between two factions, Brexiters and remainers. May is playing by the rules of coalition politics, which allow differences and even open quarrels within governing teams.
Although U.S. parties share some characteristics of coalitions — there are conservatives who don’t back Trump and Trump supporters who break with his agenda by, for example, defending free trade — this state of affairs isn’t recognized in the U.S. as in Europe. That’s why the op-ed writer felt the need for anonymity to protect a job that he says allows him to keep Trump in check. The president said he’d force the official to resign and perhaps even have him or her prosecuted on “national security” grounds.
The U.S., however, is still enough of a democracy to prevent the kind of events that shook Russia soon after the Soviet Union fell apart. In late 1991, a rift started developing between President Boris Yeltsin and his vice president, Alexander Rutskoy, and between Yeltsin and the Russian parliament. For more than two years, officials opposed to Yeltsin’s shock therapy market reforms and what they saw as his submission to the U.S. worked, first quietly and then increasingly openly, against Yeltsin’s “agenda and his worst inclinations,” blocking his moves whenever possible, grumbling that he was unfit for his post and a traitor to Russia.
Yeltsin fought back. In September 1993, he dissolved parliament and announced a constitutional reform. The legislators swiftly moved to impeach him and appoint Rutskoy president. Yeltsin sent in the troops; tanks fired at the parliament building and the rebels were thrown in prison. (The next Russian parliament amnestied them.)
The chaos in the Trump administration as described by insiders and writers with access to them is reminiscent of the early years of Yeltsin’s erratic rule in Russia, and the “deep state” resistance to Trump has echoes of the Soviet bureaucracy’s quiet revolt, which was backed even by some Yeltsin appointees. But the American internal rebels do not have the stomach for an open confrontation.
Trump, for his part, isn’t constrained by the same political mechanisms that dictate the tolerance for dissent of Merkel and May. In addition, the U.S. isn’t a shaky young democracy emerging from 70 years of Communist misrule and Trump isn’t a former Soviet regional boss, so the U.S. president lacks both the tools and the sense of being above the law that determined Yeltsin’s treatment of his deep state resistance.
This is a bad situation for the U.S.: The country is not being governed effectively because it is stuck in the middle between the Merkel and Yeltsin poles. It has a weak president pitted against anonymous rebels. That’s not just a feature of the Trump era but an institutional flaw that may well persist under future presidents. The U.S. party system and the presidency need to develop toward a more explicit recognition of coalitions. That would help clear the air and make the public discussion of the government’s internal differences healthier and more open. Otherwise, moving toward the other extreme might become too much of a temptation.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business.