Once upon a time, there was an ideal. It was called the United States of America.

And in 2016, the presidency of the United States was captured by the flamboyantly incompetent star of a TV reality show, a man who doesn’t believe in any ideal beyond his own enrichment and aggrandizement. Some shaken observers assured us that everything would yet be all right. The institutions of democracy — the courts, the Congress, the news media and the agencies of the federal government — would save America from the worst consequences of one of its worst decisions.

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"The Guardrails Hold," exulted the headline of a piece by the late conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer. He was highlighting acts of resistance to Donald Trump's bizarre excesses by entities as varied as the Boy Scouts of America and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

That was in August of 2017. It has since become painfully clear Mr. Krauthammer exulted too soon. The vaunted institutions of democracy have proven largely unequal to the task of checking Mr. Trump’s transgressions.

The courts? The record is mixed; Mr. Trump’s bid to rig the census was rejected, his Muslim ban was not.

The Congress? A hotbed of spinelessness that has given Mr. Trump less trouble than the Washington Generals give the Harlem Globetrotters.

Harlem Globetrotters stars Hammer Harrison and Dragon Taylor make trick shots on the Carnival Horizon cruise ship. (YouTube: Harlem Globetrotters)

The news media? Aggressive reporting is met with widespread apathy and partisan claims of “fake news.” The New York Times reported that Mr. Trump committed “outright fraud” as a businessman. Nobody cared.

Which brings us to federal agencies and last week’s news that the acting director of national intelligence is apparently shielding Mr. Trump from questioning over allegations of misconduct. It seems Mr. Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, “about eight times” in a July phone call, according to The Wall Street Journal. House Democrats are looking into whether military aid was withheld from Ukraine in connection with the request.

Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson found the complaint credible and designated it a matter of “urgent concern.” That’s a legal finding requiring notification of congressional oversight committees. But acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire initially refused to provide that information to lawmakers. He has since agreed to testify before Congress about the complaint on Thursday.

It's important to note the context here.

Earlier this month, the Justice Department launched an antitrust investigation of four automakers after they reached agreement with the state of California to maintain higher fuel-efficiency standards than the federal government requires. It can be no coincidence that Mr. Trump has long been at war with that state.

A worker on the Volkswagen production line in Wolfsburg, Germany. The carmaker, along with Ford, Honda and BMW, has reached a deal with California air regulators to increase fuel efficiency standards.
A worker on the Volkswagen production line in Wolfsburg, Germany. The carmaker, along with Ford, Honda and BMW, has reached a deal with California air regulators to increase fuel efficiency standards. (John MacDougall / AFP-Getty Images)

At roughly the same time, officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration were reportedly threatened with termination for contradicting Mr. Trump’s claim — he tried to prove it by marking a map with a Sharpie — that Alabama was menaced by a killer storm.

Now here’s the acting DNI throwing his body between Mr. Trump and accountability. We are seeing the credibility of the federal government mangled in service to this guy’s fragile ego. How weak the guardrails of democracy turn out to be. Even this one — a government of, by and for the people — is looking suspiciously like a government of, by and for Mr. Trump.

But where guardrails fail, things crash and fall apart. Something to remember as we wait out the long years until next November.

We were told our institutions would save us. They'll be lucky if they can save themselves.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. Readers may contact him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.

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