As I began writing this, in late September, 2020, I have just finished viewing the installation of the casket of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the statuary hall in the United States Capitol building. There were distinctive featuresin this ceremony; for example, the choice of Denyce Graves to perform two songs and Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt to give the eulogy. The eulogy itself, containing elements of Hebrew religious rites and prayer, reflected the fact that Ginsburg was the first Jewish person as well as the first woman to be laid in state in the building. The room was also very sparsely occupied, with a much smaller number of attendees present and chairs widely spaced in deference to the Covid-19 pandemic.
However, the overall procedure and setting tells of something other than difference or uniqueness. The coverage begins with the arrival of a hearse at the east steps to the capitol building. An honor guard of nine men in dress uniforms representing every branch of the U.S. military marches out to the hearse and in well-rehearsed coordinated movements removes the casket from the vehicle. They carry it to the foot of the stairs and, in command-led moves taken at the rate of about one step every three seconds, raise it slowly up the 33 steps to the entrance to the central rotunda. Marching to a rhythmic “hup, hup” that echoes through the quiet structure, the honor guard marches from there through the rotunda, and turning to the left, they enter the Hall of Statuary, the former chamber of the House of Representatives. In that large semi-circular room, with the full-size bronze and marble figures of more than 100 prominent U.S. citizens looking on, the casket is marched to the center and placed on the black-draped Lincoln catafalque, a platform first “hastily constructed” in 1865 and used to support every casket placed in state in the U.S. capitol since then. A brief ceremony follows before those in attendance line up to pay their individual respects to the casket as they leave.
This process as viewed on television might be characterized as one plodding sequence after another, a composite spectacle performed by small groups of actors who move slowly and deliberately through a much larger scattering of participants who stand relatively immobile as they wait for the completion of one element after another. From one performance to another it varies only minimally, whether it is used to honor Ginsburg, or Representative John Lewis two months earlier, or Representative Elijah Cummings in 2019, the first Black man to receive the honor, or former president George H. W. Bush the same year, or Rosa Parks, who was “laid in honor” rather than “in state”, but using the same procedure, in 2005. The choice of eulogy and music varies, but other than that it is as if the specific individual in the casket is almost irrelevant to the ceremonial. That consistency, of course, may be one of the most important symbolic functions of the entire process. Consistency is also, I might note, one of the most important aspects supporting the continuity of any government, perhaps especially of any government dependent on “the will of the people.”
As a country we must recognize how much we depend on continuity and repetition, on the recycling of procedures, ceremonies, and other conventions that are maintained either by tradition or by law. We select our leaders through procedures which are controlled by individual counties and which vary in many details, but which are governed by a common set of expectations and rules. The winners of our elections are sworn in in one set of functions and there’s a different ritual to inaugurate the beginning of each legislative session. The sessions themselves are governed by Robert’s Rules of Order augmented by additional rules specific to the legislative chamber. Interaction between and within the varied federal agencies, the Department of Justice and Environmental Protection and Homeland Security and the White House, and between the Executive and Legislative, are all regulated not only by legal constraints but by traditional expectations and customs.
That fact about government brings us to the specific example that is the United States at the time I write these words, and to the aberrant executive administration that has been in power for just short of three years and nine months. After all, one of the recurring disappointments during the Trump reign, if I can use such a mild descriptive term for how I feel about events since 2017, is that we could never rely on the executive branch to recognize, much less adhere to, the laws, the rules, the customs, the normal expectations, all of the major and minor consistencies that normally govern its operations.
Begin with nepotism. Ever since the appointment of Robert Kennedy as Attorney General in his brother’s administration six decades ago, presidents have avoided bringing family members into high positions in the executive branch. All of that restraint was overturned with a vengeance when President Trump entered the White House. His daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jerold Kushner, became senior advisors to the president and have acted as representatives of the United States in negotiations with Japan. Kushner was additionally charged with a variety of official policy roles, including acting as a sort of ambassador-at-large cdirecting relations with the middle east. In that position he has led arrangements for arms sales to Saudi Arabia and a series of peace proposals regarding Israel. All this despite the fact that Kushner was initially considered ineligible for a top security clearance before that determination was overruled by the president.
The long-standing high status given to the daughter and son-in-law contrasts with the frequent turnover among other presidential advisors and cabinet members. More than 90 percent of the top positions have been replaced at least once and more than a third at least twice. This reflects the common observation that under Trump, the primary qualification for retention is loyalty to the president and his often-changing opinions, not the traditional measures of competence or effectiveness. The result is that the top echelon of our executive branch is filled with individuals who have repeatedly been caught on video defending the president’s talking points even after the arguments have been demonstrated to be false. The most egregious example of this is Trump’s misuse of the Department of Justice and the Attorney General and the Inspectors General of federal agencies, all of which the president has treated as if they were his own personal defenders and his representatives. The DOJ and its AG and the Inspector General positions are, in fact, charged with representing the United States and the Constitution, not the president or his actions. Yet many have been chastised and fired by the president for enforcing the law. The president’s actions are clearly a violation of their customary and necessary roles.
The loyalty problem is related to the administration’s frequent misuse of the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from performing partisan political actions while on the job or while in a government office or vehicle or while wearing government identification. Like the use of cabinet officers to spread partisan talking points, Hatch Act violations undermine public trust in their government. During the Trump years, the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) has found Hatch Act violations by “at least thirteen” officials, including Mark Meadows, Dan Scavino, Marc Short, Ivanka Trump, and Kellyanne Conway. Some of these officials were reported for violating the Act several times. Other violations include the use of the White House lawn for the final event of the Republican Convention this August and for a large campaign rally just last week (October 10th). In regard to these last allegations, however, the OSC oddly ruled that the White House lawn and residence aren’t federal buildings and thus the event is not a violation–never mind the appearance of those buildings in the background–and White House aides who take leave from work are allowed to assist. The OSC has not ruled on the fact that during the GOP Convention there was also the use of an official naturalization ceremony at the White House as a promotional video (making matters worse, the participants were not asked for their approval).
The final and most egregious act betraying our expectations of tradition in governance has not yet occurred, but has been threatened repeatedly. This is President Trump’s refusal to commit to an orderly and peaceful transfer of power to his successor if he should lose the election next month. As citizens we have often complained about elections and questioned the results, especially when the vote totals are close, especially when the winner of the popular vote was declared the loser and even more so when that result was certified by a questionable Supreme Court intervention. But we have recognized that it is vital, after any challenges and recounts are resolved, that the declared loser accept the result and move on. A losing incumbent who refuses to concede and step down is a characteristic of unstable autocratic nations, not of an established democracy. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, participated in scenarios run by the Transition Integrity Project, acting out possible results in a disputed election. He noted, “We found out the Constitution has so many holes in it, it’s pitiful… The only things that patched the holes over time were precedent, protocol, and decency.” Those are elements that have been notably lacking in the Trump administration.
We expect and deserve better. We deserve a different national executive administration, one that is not dedicated to ignoring tradition and protocol in the pursuit of power, one that can restore consistency with the past and public confidence in government.
“Trump had spent so many years undermining people who challenged him. Not only his opponents but those who worked for him and for the American public. And here was the problem: By undermining so many others not only has he shaken confidence in them but he had shaken confidence in himself. This was particularly apparent when the country most needed to feel the government knew what it was doing in an unprecedented health crisis.”
— Bob Woodward, Rage, p. 387 (Epilogue)