As “Emperor Obama”–to cite a title applied to Barack Obama by House Speaker John Boehner, Senator Jeff Sessions, and others–proceeds with his plan to trample the Constitution by issuing an Executive Order on amnesty for illegals, perhaps it’s worth looking back to see how the authors of the Constitution might have reacted to such a crisis.
The short answer is that the Founders worried about presidential power-grabbing, and so wrote a proper response into the Constitution. However, the longer answer is that Emperor Obama might be setting in motion a process that actually undermines the Constitution. Although he was defeated at the polls in 2014, Obama could be initiating a process that consolidates Democratic power for the rest of the century.
In Philadelphia, in 1787, Benjamin Franklin was asked what sort of government the just-completed Constitutional Convention, presided over by George Washington, had created. “A republic,” he replied. Then the great patriot quickly added, “If you can keep it.”
And that was the key point: If Americans can keep it. The following year, 1788, James Madison wrote in Federalist #51, arguing for the ratification of the Constitution, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” But since men are not angels, Madison continued, it was necessary to create a Constitutional system of checks and balances; as Madison put it, “divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other.”
Yet where would ultimate power reside? In any kind of Constitutional showdown which of the “several offices” would be decisive? Would it be the executive branch? The judicial branch? The legislative branch? In the same Federalist #51, Madison had a ready answer: “In republican government, the legislative authority necessarily predominates.”
The Founders were quite deliberate in their determination to restrict executive power, and for a very good reason: They knew their history. They fully expected that some future American president would seek to upend the Constitutional order by seeking to concentrate power in the executive branch.
The Founders had a word for it: Caesarism.
To many contemporary American ears, the word “Caesar,” as in Julius Caesar, is sort of cool. He was, after all, a high-living, swashbuckling conqueror, an action hero of the first century, BC.
To the Founders, Julius Caesar was a figure to be feared: He extinguished the Roman Republic. A successful general in foreign military campaigns, Caesar decided that he liked being a dictator. So he brought the war home to Rome; in 50 BC he launched a bloody civil war to consolidate his dictatorship. And so, 1800 years later, the “ism”–that is, Caesarism–was still to be guarded against.
The Founders were steeped in history, and they sought particular meaning in classical allusions, which they knew would resonate with readers and listeners. As a result, they often took Roman pen names, including Cato, Publius, Agrippa, and, perhaps most poignantly, Brutus.
That would be Marcus Junius Brutus the Younger, who helped assassinate Julius Caesar in 44 BC. The Founders knew that Brutus and his comrades described themselves as liberatores (liberators), and they were all about liberty.
It should be noted immediately that the Founders were not lawless men. They believed in the rule of law, but they were also realists about the potential for its abuse. As Thomas Jefferson wrote grimly in 1787, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Indeed, to this day, the words sic semper tyrannis (“thus always tyrants”; more loosely, “death to tyrants” ) appear on the Great Seal of the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Once again, the Founders did not believe in assassination. However, as Cornell Law School professor Josh Chafetz has explained, Franklin and the other Founders were eager to see impeachment provisions inserted into the new Constitution, precisely because they wanted to fend off any possible murderous impulses; that is, they hoped that the legal proceeding of impeachment would take the place of the illegal act of murder.
Since the ratification of the Constitution in 1789, fear of Caesarism in America has waxed and waned. For most of the 19th century, the legislative branch did, in fact, predominate–just as Madison, the principal author of the Constitution, had intended.
Yet in the 20th century, the presidency gained enormous power. In 1959, the conservative historian and journalist James Burnham published a worried tome, Congress and the American Tradition, lamenting the rise of presidential power since Franklin D. Roosevelt in the New Deal. The “soaring executive,” wrote Burnham, brought with him the risk of Caesarism.
Burnham himself was a pessimist: The Caesarism that he saw in the middle of the 20th century was unlikely, he thought, to be reversed. Indeed, in the 1960s and early 1970s, it seemed that the “imperial presidency” was destined to gain more and more power.
Then came the Watergate scandal of the mid-70s; Congressional investigations, spearheaded by Democrats, forced the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974. At the time, not every Republican was happy, but Burnhamite conservatives should have cheered at the sight of legislative predominance being affirmed.
Since Watergate, of course, the struggle among the three branches has continued.
And so here we are today, in 2014: President Obama, having lost the House in 2010 and the Senate in 2014, is now issuing a sweeping Executive Order, effectively suspending immigration-law enforcement. In so doing, he is belatedly doing something that he himself has said, on at least 22 occasions, that he didn’t have the authority to do.
In addition, Obama lacks popular support for his initiative; an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows that a clear plurality of Americans oppose his plan.
In other words, as he issues his Executive Order, he is practicing Caesarism–Mike Huckabee was one contemporary figure who made the comparison–of a peculiarly weak kind: He has no majority, either on Capitol Hill or among the general public.
Newt Gingrich recently made a mordant comparison; the former House Speaker compared the 44th President to the 28th President, Woodrow Wilson, who pursued his vain plan for the League of Nations, ignoring the Republican-controlled Senate. And, as Gingrich observed, the Senate, in 1919, rejected Wilson’s treaty, thereby shattering what remained of his two-term presidency.
Of course, Obama might think that he has finessed the issue of foreign treaties; his new “global warming” deal with China, for example, is not formally a treaty, but simply an agreement between Obama and the Chinese leader–so it’s questionable if it will have any force at all, at least on the Chinese side, in the decades ahead.
Indeed, among the problems with both of these presidential dictates–first China, now illegal aliens–is that they have no enduring force. Yes, the President can use his executive power, but his actions can be all undone, almost as easily as they have been done.
If the results of the 2014 midterm elections are any guide, the path ahead for the Democrats in 2016 is rocky. If Republicans can win statewide gubernatorial elections in such blue states as Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Wisconsin, there’s plenty of reason for the GOP to be optimistic that it can undo the Democrats’ recent advantage in the electoral college.
Yet Emperor Obama still has a card to play–a card way outside of the Constitution. And that card is the demographic card.
As Charles Krauthammer said on Fox News tonight, Obama’s Executive Order is an open invitation to the teeming masses around the world: If they can get to the US, most likely, they will be able to stay. And, as Breitbart News‘Matthew Boyle has pointed out, those that are here will likely receive government benefits; in other words, we are paying people to come here illegally.
So the Obama immigration order can be seen as a demographic play: Not only does the venture solidify the Democratic base, but it also offers the prospect of expanding that base, by bringing in new immigrants, whom the Democrats obviously hope, one way or another, will be able to vote. (And even if they can’t vote, their mere presence on US soil will change the composition of Congress through reapportionment.)
Surely Democrats have noticed, for example, that one state that proved to be exempt from the pro-Republican trend of the 2014 midterm elections was immigrant-heavy California. In fact, amidst historic losses nationwide, the Democrats actually gained a House seat in the Golden State; no doubt that local success was one reason why Rep. Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco felt emboldened to seek a seventh term as Democratic leader of the House.
Perhaps Emperor Obama has an effective plan. It’s not a Constitutional plan, and it’s not really even an American plan–but it could be a strong plan for tyranny, based on new imported demography.
As we have seen, the Founders worried greatly about Caesarism, and they did their best to safeguard against it. But back in the 18th century, they couldn’t be expected to foresee every possible subversion of their new Republic. Today, in the 21st century, it’s our job to assess the new threat to our Constitution, and to make a new strategy to preserve and defend it.