Opinion

How Democrats can really resist Trump

Trump proves America's executive branch has far too much power. Time to rein it in.

Conservative pundit George Will raised eyebrows and ire recently with a simple proposal: "Vote against the GOP this November."

His case is one of desperation. Congressional Republicans have proved themselves worse than useless in reining in the abuses of the Trump administration. Even so basic an idea as requiring Senate approval of tariffs levied in the name of national security is too courageous to be countenanced by the GOP. James Madison envisioned checks and balances putting humanity's self-interest to good use in the Constitution he structured — "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition" — but, says Will, "congressional Republicans (congressional Democrats are equally supine toward Democratic presidents) have no higher ambition than to placate this president."

Will's plan is sensible — with one condition: If Democrats are serious about resisting President Trump, their inviolate aim must be to place and enforce new structural limits on the presidency itself, not just on this president.

Anything less is a jerry-built fix. It may see us through another year or six of Trump, frustrating his most egregious impulses (more on that in a moment) and giving him ample fodder for tweets complaining of Democratic obstructionism. It will not solve the underlying failure of balanced government that Trump has been able to exploit, which means it will leave us equally vulnerable to the whims of any president not hemmed by a congressional supermajority from the opposing party.

That is an awfully big risk. We can debate whether Trump is the first of his kind of president, but we can agree he is surely not the last. It is naïve beyond belief to think America will learn her lesson from this ordeal, no matter what you believe that lesson to be. There will be future presidents who are liars and hypocrites and dime-store mystics. There will be future presidents who flout the rule of law and use their office for personal gain. There will be future presidents who are corrupt and criminal, who perpetuate injustice and harm the innocent, who manipulate public opinion and stir up division and hatred. Some of them will even be Democrats.

American political memories are notoriously brief, but if their resistance to Trump is to be worth a damn, Democrats must think long-term. Trump is but the present expression of a structural problem: The executive branch has long since grown too powerful and unaccountable. The president now exploits authority no single person should be trusted to wield. The office is sacralized and aggrandized in such a way that no one who wants it should be allowed anywhere near it. Trump inherited, in the fitting phrase of The Week's Ryan Cooper, a "turnkey tyranny" (though his eagerness to play tyrant is at least tempered by his incompetence). It is time to lock that door and irrevocably smash the key into tiny little pieces.

This is not to say Congress has some special virtue such that shifting power back to the legislature will ensure that our governance improves. On the contrary, the point of ambition counteracting ambition is that neither branch is particularly virtuous, so they are best as roughly equal antagonists. It will require delayed gratification, but an opposition Congress facing a humbler presidency would have a far better chance of real victories.

The 2020 presidential election is not far away, and Democrats may find it tempting to try to muddle through without pursuing structural change. They could win a congressional majority in 2018 and devote the next two years to thwarting, piecemeal, as much of Trump's agenda as possible. This might be more immediately satisfying, and, crucially, it would leave executive power intact for the next Democratic president and supine Democratic Congress.

But in addition to being dangerously selfish and shortsighted, it might also be counterproductive. Unless he is subjected to formal checks, Trump will be able to pursue many of his worst excesses via executive orders, court battles, and the bully pulpit. Our hypothetical Democratic majority thus runs the risk of selling itself as The Resistance™ and delivering nothing at all. Will such a record play well in 2020, especially as conventional Democratic leadership faces increasingly viable challenges from the left?

The overgrowth of the executive will not be easy to trim back. There are powerful institutions and incentives opposing any move in that direction. But if the Democrats do not seek structural change after winning back Congress — and especially if they have a strong majority which, with help from a few Republicans willing to buck the party line, could override a presidential veto — the game is up. It will be clear their priority is preserving Trump's power for a Democrat to enjoy.

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