Trump and the Post-Constitutional Presidency


Some conservatives say that Donald Trump is a menace to the Constitution, because he seems intent on picking up Barack Obama’s D.C.-approved extra-constitutional powers and using them for his own Trump-ian purposes, maybe even going further down the path to executive-order dictatorship than Obama did.

This aspect of the Trump campaign should be welcomed by constitutional conservatives.

Trump is the lens through which liberals can see the magnitude of what Obama has done, and understand why it’s wrong.  They won’t rediscover the virtues of divided government until they’re scared to death of the alternative.

The concern among conservatives is shown by Rich Lowry at National Review, who marvels at how the Tea Party “rebaptized the GOP in the faith of limited government and constitutional constraints,” in 2010, producing “a class of constitutional obsessives like Sens. Rand Paul and Mike Lee who were focused not just on what government shouldn’t do, but on what it couldn’t do and why”… but just five years later, much of the Republican base is swooning for Donald Trump, who is nobody’s idea of a constitutional obsessive.  

Meanwhile, Rand Paul is on the verge of getting booted to the undercard debate, which he himself described as the “kids’ table.”  To avoid that fate, he might skip the next debate altogether.

Lowry finds Trump’s expressed admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin unsurprising, given his embrace of post-Constitutional strongman government:

Trump exists in a plane where there isn’t a Congress or a Constitution. There are no trade-offs or limits. There is only his will and his team of experts who will figure out how to do whatever he wants to do, no matter how seemingly impossible.

The thought you can’t do that never occurs to him. He would deport the American-born children of illegal immigrants. He has mused about shutting down mosques and creating a database of Muslims. He praised FDR’s internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II.

You can be forgiven for thinking that in Trump’s world, constitutional niceties—indeed any constraints whatsoever—are for losers. It’s only strength that matters. It shouldn’t be a surprise that he expresses admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin, a “powerful leader” who is “highly respected within his own country and beyond.” Trump’s calls to steal Iraq’s oil and kill the families of terrorists are in a Putinesque key.

For some on the right, clearly, the Constitution was an instrument rather than a principle. It was a means to stop Obama, and has been found lacking.

I happen to be one of those Constitutional obsessives Lowry mentioned.  My appreciation for the beauty and wisdom of the American Constitution has only grown as I’ve seen it shredded, trampled, bypassed, and defaced with progressive graffiti.  Some claim the Constitution is inapplicable to modern life because the Founders couldn’t have foreseen our world of technological marvels; on the contrary, I am increasingly impressed by their foresight – or more properly, their ability to express timeless principles, rooted in eternal truths and an understanding of human nature that no current scientific advance has invalidated at all.  

Our great-grandparents were fools to yield the smallest fraction of their constitutional birthright to the first progressives and socialists, and our great-grandchildren will still be paying for their mistake, no matter how wisely we vote for the rest of our lives.

On the question of how the Constitution should restrain government – how we should be trimming the State to fit the Constitution, not vice versa – I’m somewhere between Senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, and find their arguments fascinating.  There is true statesmanship to be seen in the clash between those two on various issues.  Whatever his poll numbers might be, I would rather not see Paul sent to the kiddie table, or avoid the debate entirely, because I want to hear more of that argument.

But that’s just me… me and a few others.  That’s not where the country is right now.

I think we can help the country get there, but it will take time.  The degenerate mess Barack Obama leaves us didn’t take shape entirely on his watch.  We didn’t get to this fearsome low-growth, totalitarian moment – a moment in which both the First and Second Amendments are under sustained attack – in a single election, and we won’t get out of our predicament in one presidential term.

We have to start turning the runaway train of collectivist power around, and if Donald Trump scares liberals into realizing that post-Constitutional unitary executive power is a horrible idea, I call that a public service.  I’ve congratulated him before for helping to pull Democrats back from dictatorship a full year ahead of schedule.  I didn’t think I’d hear the first left-wing paens to divided, limited government until the day after Obama’s Republican successor was inaugurated.

Lowry alludes to the importance of this civics lesson when he notes that “Trump is a reaction to Obama’s weakness, but also to his exaggerated view of executive power,” and worries that Trump might actually be able to impose unconstitutional initiatives through raw executive power, because Obama has paved the way: “A hallmark of Obama’s governance has been to say that he lacks the power to act unilaterally on a given issue, and then do it anyway.”

Conservatives warned liberals about this consistently throughout Obama’s adventures in executive overreach, asking with each new power grab, each hasty rewrite of the disastrous Affordable Care Act: “What are you going to do when a Republican uses these new executive super-powers to impose ideas you hate?”  

That question never bothered the Left much, and I’ll tell you why.  It’s because they think the dictum Absolute power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely is a recipe for their success, not a warning.  They think the model of government they’ve been building for generations is like the One Ring forged by Sauron in the Lord of the Rings saga: it will corrupt anyone who sits in the Oval Office into an instrument of progressivism and centralized power, no matter how nominally conservative he might have been during his presidential campaign.  They think they’ve build a system that cannot be reformed, a living organism of federal power that will fight savagely to defend itself.  A nominally small-government Republican might ride that beast for a little while, but he will never master it.

“The way you solve things is by making it politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing,” Milton Friedman wisely said.  Liberals saw the dark side of that wisdom and made it their creed, creating a system that makes it politically profitable for the right people to do the wrong thing.  The media calls it “growing in office,” and liberals celebrate Republicans who “grow in office” until they’re left of the Democrat they defeated.

Consider this: if you seriously believe in using centralized power to impose a positive agenda upon an unruly nation, you must eventually lose patience with divided, representative government.  We’ve heard that exasperation with representation constantly in left-wing rhetoric throughout the Obama presidency – they’re always fuming at how Congress moves too slowly, and how stubborn representatives can derail brilliant agendas.  They’re head-over-heels for the totalitarian ideology of climate change, which is no longer shy about stating that democracy and representative government cannot be allowed to stand against its agenda.  

When the Left succeeded in amending the Constitution to get Senators elected by popular vote, instead of serving as representatives of their state governments, they began the process of dismantling divided government.  They are very close to finishing the job by rendering Congress largely irrelevant.

Obama’s final steps toward post-constitutional dictatorship were also meant to create the sort of national electorate that will never elect a sincere small-government reformer again.  The Left has been using their power to reshape the electorate to their liking, with instruments ranging from immigration policy to expanded dependency on government programs.  Obama’s weak economy serves the Left’s interests further, by leaving the hated middle class with less money to spend on activities liberals dislike, and less confidence to assert their economic independence.  

Barack Obama is the most focused and dedicated foe the American middle class has ever faced, and he’s just about defeated them, by convincing them to fear their neighbors and seek the protection of the State in all things.  When people with good jobs need a welfare program to afford the health insurance they think is essential to survival, the Left doesn’t have much reason to worry about an independent middle class staging a revolt against their agenda.

For all of these reasons, Obama Democrats were willing to bet there would never be a Republican President using the powers Obama seized – not one completely hostile to the Left’s interests, at any rate.  No Republican would ever use the sleazy tricks Democrats used to shove the Affordable Care Act down our throats.  No Republican could ever get away with discarding laws he didn’t like, rewriting legislation on the fly in the Oval Office, treating Congress like a minor obstacle to his ambitions, or using executive orders to circumvent the law.  

Many Democrats believe demographic trends will soon give them a permanent lock on the presidency, the culmination of a plan to reshape the electorate that weak and foolish Republicans did little to thwart when they had a chance.  Even if there are one or two more Republican Presidents before the demographic lock snaps shut forever, the Democrats are confident it will be someone they can handle, with the media’s help.  They’re willing to roll their eyes, stop complaining about “gridlock” and “obstructionism” for a while, and become the biggest gridlocking obstructionist minority party the world has ever seen, while their media preposterously salutes them as champions of limited government, and demands so much “respect” for the minority that they effectively run the Congress they couldn’t win at the ballot box.  

We’ve been getting a preview of that performance since 2014, and it’s been working, which is why so many Republican voters are livid at the party Establishment.

That’s where Donald Trump comes in.

Lowry puts it well: “Progressives have been perfectly willing to bless Obama’s post-constitutional government. Trump’s implicit promise is to respond in kind, and his supporters think it’s about time.”  

They also think it’s about time for a muscular assertion of American priorities on the world stage.  They’ve been watching other nations ruthlessly pursue their agendas, while much of the Western world is run by people who hate it, and think their own countries need to suffer for a catalogue of past sins.  Some say it’s time for global aggressors to see what it’s like when America plays by the same rules they use.  At the very least, they want a quarterback who plays for his own team.

Personally, I want a leader who will use Obama’s executive powers only to erase them, healing the Constitution with the same instruments that were employed to wound it.  I want someone who can socially engineer the American populace until it isn’t socially engineered any more.  Some say we get the government we deserve, but for too long, our Ruling Class has abused its power to create the electorate it wants.  It will not be easy to put things right.  It might be impossible… but a little shred of possibility was all our Founding Fathers needed to change the course of history, and we are the heirs to their courage and vision.

It’s not a bad start to terrorize the Left with the possibility of a populist Republican president who doesn’t give a damn what their media machine says.  The Western world has a rich literary tradition of outlaws who restore justice.  The Left is passionately in love with the idea of turning the decency and restraint of their enemies against them, trapping them inside the house of law while it burns down around them.  

That’s what Saul Alinsky’s infamous Rules for Radicals is all about – probing aggressively for weaknesses in the established order, and paralyzing its defenders with charges of hypocrisy.  As their fear of Trump forces liberals to start talking about divided government and limited executive power far ahead of schedule, they find themselves on the wrong side of the Alinsky formula for a change… and that will create openings for sharp conservatives to exploit in the 2016 races, all the way down the ballot.

It’s a shame our political discourse has come to this, but Donald Trump is not the reason it came to this.  Maybe the only way we can get Democrats on board with demolishing the estate of unconstitutional power Obama leaves is to let Trump turn it into a casino.