New York Times Politics Today Essay

This ideal of the selfless federal servant was always partly a noble fiction; as “Hamilton” fans know, the founding era’s hostilities were vicious enough that a vice president killed a former Treasury secretary. The aspiration to meet that ideal nonetheless held sway well into the 1820s, creating what became known as the “Era of Good Feelings.” It was as debates over slavery and territorial expansion heated up that party warfare returned. The Civil War itself erupted in the aftermath of a partisan event: the election of the country’s first Republican president.

Two decades later, the assassination of President James Garfield brought a new round of national soul-searching. The deranged assassin, Charles Guiteau, said he committed the deed in order to unify the Republican Party and because he felt he had deserved a patronage appointment as a European ambassador. A couple years later, in 1883, Congress passed the Pendleton Act, the nation’s first comprehensive Civil Service law, designed partly to calm the roiling political waters. Under these new rules, many federal jobs would be parceled out according to “merit” rather than party patronage, ensuring the independence and integrity of at least some of the people serving in government.

As the 20th century dawned, and Americans embraced the promise of apolitical government expertise, administrative agencies and bureaus proliferated — among them the tiny Bureau of Investigation. Founded in 1908, the bureau started out plagued by the very problems Civil Service law was designed to eliminate: incompetence, corruption and crony appointments. Then, in 1924, a bustling young director named J. Edgar Hoover set about whipping the bureau into shape. Hoover is often seen today as a tyrant and a violator of civil liberties, but when he came to office, he was considered a reformer and an enemy of “politics,” a man who could be relied upon to tell the truth when everyone else seemed to be lying for partisan ends.

He was no political naïf, however. Despite his fealty to the idea of nonpartisan professionalism, Hoover fought to keep his agents out of the Civil Service, sure that its rules and regulations would limit his autonomy as director. This sleight of hand gave Hoover’s F.B.I. its peculiar character, at once a respected investigative body and a personal fief. It also helped to insulate Hoover from the fate visited upon James Comey. As the Times journalist Tom Wicker noted two years before Hoover’s death in 1972, the F.B.I. director achieved “virtually unlimited power and independence.” No president, Republican or Democrat, ever dared to fire him.

This is one example of how bureaucratic independence can go awry. In the mid-1970s, alarmed by abuses of power during Hoover’s nearly 48-year directorship, Congress decided that future F.B.I. directors should be subject to a 10-year limit. The policy effectively split the difference between autonomy and accountability: The president still had the right to fire an F.B.I. director, but the law established a standard period of service longer than any president’s two terms. One of several things Trump’s showdown with Comey calls into question is whether this arrangement is still enough to ensure a reasonable level of F.B.I. independence — especially under a president disinclined to observe political norms.

Today many Americans approach the notion of professional, nonpartisan expertise with suspicion, seeing it as mere cover for elite interests, bureaucratic self-preservation or partisan agendas. This is partly for good reason: The track record of our “independent” experts has been mixed in recent years. The intelligence community miscalculated grievously about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Many economic authorities failed to see the financial crisis coming. Even “independent counsels” have hardly been blameless; witness the lingering bitterness over Kenneth Starr’s investigations of Bill Clinton. In this context, any politically sensitive investigation, whether of Hillary Clinton’s emails or Donald Trump’s ties to Russia, runs the risk of appearing to be no more than another way to score points against the enemy.

Trump seems to believe this is what’s happening to him and has lashed out at any agency or hearing that delivers bad news. His showdown with the professional Civil Service isn’t limited to the intelligence community either. At the State Department, career employees are faced with proposed budget cuts and White House indifference; at the departments of Energy and Education, the people in charge seem to have been placed there primarily to undo what their departments do best. Trump’s decision to fire Comey may have set a particularly dangerous precedent, but it is really only one part of a greater crisis of authority, that no independent prosecutor or commission can entirely fix. The enthusiasm for Mueller’s appointment suggests that “independence” still holds some power as a political ideal. The hard part has always been putting it into practice.

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Sports “has the power to bring us together, even when the country is divided,” he insisted, adding, “There’s a direct line between Jackie Robinson and me standing here.”

Mr. Obama’s earnest belief that sports “speaks to something better in us” is a common trope among aficionados. They extol the grace and courage of favorite players, the ecumenical bonding experience of fandom, and especially those moments when a devotion to athletic prowess overpowers prejudice.

But the current occupant of the Oval Office has given voice to a more primal, and frankly powerful, vision of sports, the same one Orwell identified seven decades ago: “Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play,” Orwell wrote. “It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in violence.”

Anyone familiar with the president’s Twitter feed — which has become both his bully pulpit and his confessional booth — would have a hard time disputing that his brand of politics exudes this sporting spirit.

Mr. Trump is ruled by a lust for competitive prestige, which he achieves by bragging and stoking feuds. Like no other president before him, he has abandoned the Jeffersonian ideal of compromise in favor of the zero-sum game. For him to win, the other side must lose.

It can be tempting to mock a leader who nurses his ego by gazing at a map of his “massive” Electoral College victory. But Mr. Trump is president, in no small part, because he was able to exploit the sporting spirit within us.

As Americans have become geographically uprooted and spiritually unmoored, they have turned to sports as a source of tribal identity, a primarily masculine refuge from the anxieties of adulthood, the lingua franca in a fragmented culture. The hours we spend consuming sports dwarfs the amount devoted to political activism, volunteer work, even religious worship.

From the moment he began his campaign, Mr. Trump understood that most Americans have exchanged the burdens of citizenship for the pleasures of fandom. And he intuited that politics, for all its precious norms and pretensions, was at its root a blood sport.

While his primary opponents droned on about policy, Mr. Trump dominated debates simply by trash talking. At rallies, he bragged about his poll numbers and urged partisans to pummel protesters. He mocked elitist losers and vowed to usher in an era of winning.

Establishment Republicans yelped that he needed to pivot to a gentler, more inclusive tone. But in the end nearly all of them voted for Mr. Trump. They did so because of what political scientists call “negative partisanship,” an ingrained hatred for the other party that is often entirely divorced from ethics or policy.

Orwell would have seen in this pattern the infiltration of the sporting spirit into our political culture. The result is voters whose prevailing ethos boils down to the motto of Al Davis, the former owner of the Oakland Raiders: “Just win, baby.” Even if you need to suppress votes, or gerrymander districts, or get help from Russian agents to do it.

But Americans across the political spectrum got caught up in the same spirit. Think about how much time liberals spent hate-watching Mr. Trump’s rallies, or hitting refresh on predictive models such as The Times’s Upshot meter. They, too, gobbled up stories that focused on strategy and poll numbers. Is it any wonder that the news media spent so much time focused on the scoreboard, and not the stakes?

We should all be alarmed by a postelection study, conducted by Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, which revealed that just 10 percent of the 2016 election coverage focused on policy. But we should also understand that this dismal statistic redounds to us.

A year into the Trump presidency, the news media continues to treat politics as a kind of wonky offshoot of the sports entertainment industry. Coverage of major bills focuses more on whip counts and the tallying of winners and losers than the consequences of legislation.

The president, naturally, continues to exploit this tendency. He uses the news media to sow discord, to inflame warring cultural and racial factions in a manner designed to steadily erode the common good.

Should any of the Patriots or Eagles choose to kneel during the national anthem, you can be sure our tweeter in chief will post a bilious squib aimed at inciting his fans against those with the gall to protest institutional racism on Super Bowl Sunday.

President Obama lauded sports as a realm capable of “changing hearts.” But he never quite grasped the relationship between our devotion to athletics and the cycle of escalating recrimination and intransigence in our realpolitik.

Instead, we now have a leader who grasps, all too well, the ways in which our sporting spirit can be prodded to reveal the darkest precincts of our national soul.

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