“Kill him; kill the umpire” shouted a fan in the famous poem “Casey at the Bat.”
Unlike the mighty Casey, President Donald Trump followed that advice for four solid years, and has encouraged many thousands of followers — millions? — to figuratively kill the referees inside and outside of government.
When news organizations abandoned their role as referees and acted like they were the enemy, they played into the bully’s hand.
In sports, games without umpires would be ridiculous — instant anarchy. Trump understood this far better than most, and pursued it by avoiding, discrediting and replacing the referees wherever possible. Trump promised in 2016 to “turn Washington upside down”; undercutting the referees was the backbone of that attack.
Now, for all the laudable talk of unity and bipartisanship, the core challenge facing the nation is to bring back the nonpartisan arbiters, who are the true gatekeepers of our democracy. President Joe Biden — and the rest of us — must urgently restore trust in the independent, truth-telling institutions inside and outside government that are crucial to the proper functioning of our republic. This is the key task, because little can be accomplished as long as public cynicism dominates.
The damage is hard to exaggerate. The number of casualties — referees injured, disabled or purged — is enormous.
Under Trump, the attorney general was not independent but the president’s legal frontman. Same for the U.S. attorneys who did the work of the Justice Department around the country. Those foolish enough to follow the facts instead of the party line were sacked in a blink.
The inspectors general, whose offices were set up specifically to be apolitical watchdogs, instead became political loyalists.
The intelligence agencies, foreign and domestic, including particularly the FBI, the CIA, the National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security, were established to give the president unbiased information on which to set policy. But Trump turned them into policy advocates.
The courts couldn’t be trusted, especially if the judge was an immigrant or “proud” of his heritage, like Indiana-born Gonzalo Cruiel. Or if they were Muslim. Such early criticism found an audience, and helped Trump attack the many courts that rejected his attempts to overturn the 2020 election.
A position designed to provide straightforward analysis, presidential science adviser, was left unfilled for months at a time,, and then proved ineffective. Even the pandemic advisory committee had to be led by an ideologue, no matter how unqualified.
Most dangerous, the electoral process — democracy itself — was declared a failure. Trump’s insistence that only voter fraud could explain why his landslide victory in 2020 was not recognized generated the “stop the steal” chant at the center of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.
Most close to home, my former colleagues in the press couldn’t be trusted because they delivered fake news, printed by enemies of the people.
As a former newspaperman, I have been struck by how brazenly the Trump administration said it would live in a universe of “alternative facts,” and how successfully it has pulled millions into that mindset. While Trump might be out of office, that mindset persists.
Which is why the danger is so great — and why Biden, for all that he must work to right the situation, can’t do it alone. All of us who believe in the importance of the referees who owe their allegiance to the people and the Constitution, not to a person or party, must act. To start, we must admit when we have contributed to the problem.
The flagships of the mainstream press, including The New York Times, let their news pages become too adversarial too often, and frequently in their own voice. Lies must be challenged, and it must have been incredibly frustrating to editors when Trump kept calling the press “the enemy.” But when news organizations abandoned their role as referees and acted like they were the enemy, they played into the bully’s hand.
The press now faces a daunting challenge: Even when publications produce important, thoroughly documented stories, what can they do to have them be believed?
The damage has been great. To be seen as independent arbiters once again, the press will have to be independent arbiters once again, day by day and story by story.
There were, however, umpires who held their ground. A key turning point against Trump was the performance of state and local election officials from both parties on Election Day. More than any others, these professionals carried out their duties honorably and effectively. They were the real heroes of democracy in 2020. They showed clearly, and beyond rational doubt, that Biden won the election by a comfortable margin in both the Electoral College and the popular vote.
Biden — and the rest of us — must urgently restore trust in the independent, truth-telling institutions inside and outside government that are crucial to the proper functioning of our republic.
Most important, though, will be what Biden does going forward. He needs to appoint referees who will give him the unvarnished truth, and then he must follow it, even when it hurts.
One encouraging sign is Biden’s nomination of Merrick Garland to be the attorney general. Garland has a reputation for independence, as well as brilliance. Biden said exactly the right thing, that Garland’s allegiance would be to the public and the Constitution, not to him. Now, they need to show that in their actions. And Biden must fill out his staff with more who will do the same.
In the poem, mighty Casey “stilled the rising tumult,” but he didn’t get a hit. Biden must do more, as must the press and other umpires both inside and outside the government. The need is urgent to put the referees back on the field, and help them earn back the credibility that is essential to the functioning of our democracy.