How Trump exposes a dangerous problem at the heart of American government
Trump shouldn't have this much power. But neither should anyone else.
C.S. Lewis describes friendship as that moment when "one person says to another 'What! You too? I thought that no one but myself…'" Up until that moment, you thought no one else shared your combination of interests. No one else thought as you did. No one else saw what you saw. Until that moment of friendship.
When Donald Trump won the Republican nomination and then the presidency, I hoped to have a similar revelation — politically, mind you, and on a mass scale — with the American public. We libertarians get a bit of a "voice crying in the wilderness" complex about executive overreach, but with Trump, I thought, we would truly be vindicated. In Trump, everyone would see why it's risky to concentrate so much authority in the presidency, in the whims of a single person. Everyone would see why stout structural limits on this office are so necessary. Everyone would see what we've lost in upsetting the constitutional balance of power, in permitting our equilateral government to go scalene. Trump's unique failings of policy and character would shine a brilliant light on how fundamentally reckless we have been to let the executive devolve to its present imperial state.
But that hasn't happened.
Trump has plenty of detractors, yes. At a popular level, we saw the Women's March, the Science March, the Earth Day March, and the Tax Day March — all very impressive and more or less explicitly born out of anti-Trump fervor. Yet the harsh reality is these movements' concrete accomplishments in cutting back executive overgrowth is nada. Marching has not taken away President Trump's ability to misuse all the power shortsighted partisans of the recent past entrusted to Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama (and, now, their orange successor). Marching has not erected institutional strongholds built to weather any presidential storm.
True, the courts have slapped down Trump's immigration and refugee executive orders, an embarrassing setback so early in his presidency. But they have not slapped down executive orders talis qualis, the primary means by which the executive branch has usurped the constitutional policy-making authority of the legislature. The presidency is supposed to be administrative, acting on congressional direction — George Washington gave his office the humble definition of "chief magistrate." Today it is an expansive role of unparalleled and, with Trump’s 100-day mark come and gone, still unfettered power.
The legislature, meanwhile, remains as feckless as ever. GOP leadership, chary of offending an uninformed and capricious president of their own party, have displayed a shabby hypocrisy, permitting in Trump all they decried in Obama.
Congressional Democrats have busied themselves complaining about Trump on a personal level and debating the merits of impeachment. With representative myopia, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) recently argued that if it is true Trump attempted to squash fired FBI Director James Comey's investigation of ousted National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, the president at best "committed a grave abuse of executive power." She did not, however, proceed to question the status quo of executive power itself.
Meaningful structural change could be had, if we wanted it, though the process would be difficult and often counterintuitive given the extent to which presidential glorification has become our cultural norm. At the federal level, it would require a competent, substantive, accountable reassertion of congressional authority — stop laughing and bear with me — especially in matters of foreign policy and regulatory action. At the state and local level, as recent criminal justice reform efforts have shown, it would require the activist enthusiasm that fueled all those marches to be funneled into shifting the balance of power back toward strata of governance whose smaller size makes them at once more responsive and more boring, which is to say, less subject to the excesses that got us Trump.
The president's defenders have coined the phrase "Trump Derangement Syndrome" to describe the special venom with which, they say, his critics tip their weapons. This is mostly a punt, but it does get at the foolishly individual nature of too much pushback against the president.
It is true that Trump should not have the power he has. But the bigger truth, the truth that has so far failed to register, is that no one should.