Politics, US Election

A Government of One

One year on from the beginning of the Trump presidency and unsurprisingly we’re starting to see plenty of the ‘look in the mirror’ articles and books. There seems to be a great deal of introspection in America right now, which is rather a unique occurrence. For the first time, in my recollection, Americans are genuinely starting to ask themselves how they feel things are going in their country.

In some ways, things are going rather well actually. The stock market is hitting record highs every week and unemployment continues to decline. With a bullish economy, a lot of things are looking up for average Americans and the White House continues to trot out that very line every single day.

Of course, this strong economic environment is being overshadowed by the behavior that we’re regularly seeing from the White House. When the President of the United States isn’t making racially charged statements, he’s taking to Twitter to complain about ‘fake news’ or derailing his own party’s spending plans.

This behavior and the way in which President Trump conducts his newfound role, has led to a great deal of hand-wringing from many commentators. David Frum’s excellent book Trumpocracy is the latest example of a political thinker looking down the road and seeing some very large bumps in America’s future.

Clearly, some economic hurdles lie in the future, despite what the White House might say. Economic bubbles always burst, and people lose their jobs, that’s just the way the world works. However, the Trump presidency has already exposed some true fault lines in the American political system that are much bigger than the economy. Ones that could potentially lead to a very different country than we have come to expect over the last few decades.

There is one particular issue that stands out to me. One singular fault line that Trump has truly exposed that could genuinely endanger America’s future. It’s an issue that seems clear as day to me, and yet barely seems to register in the press.

While we continue talking about the President’s mental state, or the corruption that may, or may not have run throughout his campaign, we still seem to ignore the elephant in the room. Isn’t it a bit terrifying that in a nation founded on justice and freedom for all, one singular human being is so powerful?

It’s an odd question to ask and one that most Americans will scoff at and ignore. The country was, after all, founded on the principle of shaking off the oppressive yoke of a tyrannical king. Almost to a man (or woman), every American will argue that their system was constructed so that no one person could hold power over the masses.

But do the facts back up this rather ideal narrative that everyone learns in school? Unfortunately, while they might have done in the early days of the republic, things have changed a great deal over the last 70 years.

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Like so many issues, it all started with a war. Technically, the United States government has not declared war on another nation since  1941. You see, under the constitution, the nation cannot be led into a war just by one individual. Instead, traditionally, it requires a debate in the halls of Congress and eventually a vote.

However, when Harry Truman bypassed Congress to start the Korean War, he brought about a seismic change the reverberations of which are still being felt today. At the time, Truman believed he was just being ‘expedient’ because he thought Congress would agree with him. But in the long term, he set a dangerous precedent which every President has followed since, knowing that they are no longer accountable to Congress.

This process has been challenged only once, back in 1973 when Congress was so irate about Vietnam that they passed the War Powers Act which demands that a President allow Congress to vote on a war after 90 days. That bill has been a singular failure, never invoked by any President or Congress since. Not once. Since the day Truman decided to ignore Congress and they did nothing, American democracy changed.

Then you have the two-party system. Initially, it was an effective form of government that required bi-partisan legislation to function. In short, both parties had to work together whether they liked it or not. And for a long time, they did seem to like it. Working together to get moderate bills passed was seen as a good thing on Capitol Hill.

That officially began to die in the 1990s when Newt Gingrich faced down then-President Clinton in a dispute over spending plans and shut down the US Government. While he was initially lampooned in the media, Gingrich changed the political landscape in that moment. He became a cult hero to the Republican base and politicians on both sides took note.

They realized that they were more likely to win elections by blaming one another in a country that had become increasingly politically divided. Elected officials who worked across the aisle, found themselves losing primaries to more radical candidates who had no intention of actually doing anything and were instead voted in to obstruct. Indeed, voters have become considerably more interested in an ‘all or nothing’ approach from their politicians. Compromise on anything is not going to win you an election anymore. Just ask Marco Rubio.

And so here we are, 20 years later in a nation that has struggled to pass any real landmark legislation since then. Yes, we had ‘Obamacare’ and the most recent tax bill, but both of these were decades in the making and neither are even semi-decent bills. The issues with both are endless but they essentially sneaked through due to fortuitous timing more than anything else. Both passed during a political ‘perfect storm.’ That is to say, one of those now-few periods where one party controls the House, the Senate, and the White House. The Democrats had taken over Congress in the run up to Obama’s election in 2008 and the Republicans did the same in 2016.

Those periods don’t tend to last very long, unfortunately. When anger is the main motivator for voters, it’s pretty hard to stir it up on your side when you hold all the cards and still aren’t doing very much. Most observers think it would be surprising if the Republicans hold onto the House in 2018 and if they don’t the Democrats will use the same tactics we have seen for the past 20 years – they’ll clog up policymaking for the foreseeable future and we’ll be stuck with at least another 2 years of infighting.

Fortunately for lawmakers, recent Presidents have found a nice little loophole in this system and a way to make sure the policies they really care about can still happen. It’s called the Executive Order and it’s not entirely constitutional. In these orders, the President essentially tells government departments how to use their resources. They aren’t actual legislation – rather a guideline on how to do something, so technically, they are not laws and Congress can’t do anything about them.

Now, they can be written in all sorts of different ways and some are completely pointless (see the abortive attempts to ban Muslims). But if written and used effectively, they can essentially replace policy. For example, Obama’s Gay Rights EO forced government departments to give the LGBT community equal rights. Now Obama never actually passed a law alongside this and Congress never actually voted, but his EO was written and targeted to provide the same effect as a law, without actually being one.

Of course, back when Barack Obama was using EOs left and right to get his policy agenda through because Democrats had lost the House, Republicans were furious. They rightly complained that he was behaving in an unconstitutional manner. Those same Republicans are now suspiciously quiet when the current President does exactly the same thing on policies that they like while Democrats are suddenly up in arms about constitutionality. Funny that.

And so what was once seen as three equal branches of government has now become two bickering yet toothless chambers made up of 535 powerless individuals sitting in Congress. Just down the road, in a much smaller building however, sits just one person, and they seem pretty happy.

As a Commander-in-Chief no longer in need of Congress to direct the nation’s armed forces, the most powerful military in the world answers to one person. As the only person in his party who can actually accomplish political outcomes thanks to a fractured and broken Congress, he is also the only person who can truly make laws.

Therefore, no matter his accomplishments or failures, the President will always be protected by his or her party. The only real way to get anything done in the current legislative quagmire is through Executive Orders. Even Obamacare needed to be propped up with EOs as the years went by, and we will likely see more of the same with the latest Republican Tax bill. Protecting the only person who can issue those orders and deliver on their agenda is now the main function of Republican members of Congress. Removing that same person and getting in ‘their’ guy has become the sole function of the Democrats since 2016.

The alarming degree of power that has been allowed to accumulate within the Oval Office is only now becoming apparent to many because of the man who currently inhabits it. When it was someone who seemed rational and likeable, it was easy for most to overlook the fact that the office itself had already consumed Congress. But while it might have been easy to ignore, that doesn’t change the fact that America is now, more than ever, a government of one.

Fears about what a man like Donald Trump can do with this incredible amount of power now sweep the nation. My belief is that this is not actually the true concern. The man has consistently demonstrated an astounding ability to get in his own way and be his own worst enemy. His ineffectiveness and incompetence seem to know no bounds.

No president in history has inherited a greater golden goose than this one. He has total control in the House and the Senate; the economy is coming right into the peak of its boom years after recovering from the 2008 housing crash; many voters are legitimately hungry for change. Yet, despite these advantages, he has struggled to put forward any kind of agenda and seems to be constantly fighting unnecessary battles. Bar the last-minute tax bill, the sum of his accomplishments in year one is that he didn’t suffer a stroke despite a shockingly bad diet and he signed lots and lots of poorly written, do-nothing EOs.

Trump has exposed how weak American democracy has become over the past few decades. He is a symptom of a system that no longer empowers the many, but instead places truly terrible power in the hands of just one. If that isn’t corrected soon, then eventually, someone who is a lot smarter and a lot worse than Trump will get their hands on that power.

The greatest revelation of the Trump Presidency for me, is that nobody seems to think that there is anything wrong with the office itself. Rather it’s the man temporarily inhabiting it who is the problem. My greatest concern is that if the power that office wields is not reined in and returned to Congress, that eventually Americans will be reminded of what it’s like to live under a capricious monarch. The only difference is that this one will live in the White House and not in Buckingham Palace.

 

Alistair Penny worked for the Center for Social Justice and the Conservative Party in the UK back when David Cameron was still a thing. He moved to the US for business and stayed for the football. You can follow him on Twitter @alistairpenny 

Featured Pic by Ryan Johnson

Filed under: Politics, US Election

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Alistair Penny worked for the Center for Social Justice and the Conservative Party in the UK back when David Cameron was still a thing. He moved to the US for business and stayed for the football.

19 Comments

  1. dawkin says

    Nonsense and balderdash. You’re just making this stuff up.

    • Burt Reagan says

      Perhaps, but not in the way you think it is. Yes, there has been some catastrophizing from some people on the far left: He’s going to deport *all* Muslims, kill all Mexicans, go full nazi; we’re going to have a full dictatorship, etc. But that has nothing to do with calm, sober observations about reality that some people like Frum, Andrew Sullivan, every single thinking conservative, and Sam Harris make.

      Trump is not normal, moral, decent, or thoughtful. Anyone who thinks everything is just fine and dandy is either stupid or a lunatic. We’ve all been watching him. This isn’t opinion or theory. The guy is obviously balls crazy and reckless. This weird group of people earnestly proclaiming all criticism is TDS (that the sky is actually bright purple) are silly and transparent. Who do you think you’re going to fool?? It’s laughable stuff. And blaming CNN, the NYT, or NBC or is equally stupid. I don’t even watch TV news or read the NYT. I observe reality. I hear what Trump says and see what he does. That is reason enough.

      But, sure, some people, some places are going overboard about Trump and the sky falling. But not most people, and no one who is capable of honesty and fairness.

      • Mark Matis says

        Is that you, Jeb!? Shouldn’t you be changing Daddy’s diaper instead of spouting your lies?

  2. Hermes says

    There were no ‘attempts to ban Muslims’ by the present president. Like Trump loathe him, this magazine is appreciated for its ability to cut through media propaganda and ‘balderdash.’ You usually doa a great job, but this piece is well below par.

    • Steven says

      Trump has said since day one his goal is to ban Muslims from entering the US by any means necessary.

      • When you only get your news from Left wing propaganda sites, you miss a lot. His actual statement was that he wanted a total and complete shutdown of of Muslims entering the US until representatives can figure out “what in the hell is going on.” His “OMG! MUSLIM BAN!!!!~” hysteria laden EO was to stop the visa from a handful of countries, identified by the PRIOR ADMINISTRATION, as being either unable or UNWILLING to verify the identity of the visa applicant. If it was a ban on all Muslims, don’t you think they would have listed the countries where a vast majority of Muslim visitors come from?

        When Messiah Obama or The Almighty HRC speaks, they take the verbatim quote and “give context” amenable to poll numbers (like the “i want open borders” quip or the infamous debate questions w/ Mitt Romney in the 2012 election), but the same interpretive understanding is not allowed for President Trump because…”OMG! TRUMP!!!”

  3. Korakys says

    When the Founding Fathers were writing their constitution they ended up virtually copying the system of government that Britain used, except they greatly expanded the voting franchise and made the king-equivalent subject to election every 4 years. The American system was the best in the world when it was created, but the British system evolved over time while the Americans have largely stayed stuck in the past, now having the worst democracy in the developed world.

    Now Britain is ruled by a queen in name only while America is ruled by a king in all but name. The Founding Fathers have failed, it is time for a new constitutional convention.

  4. Carl Sageman says

    This article contains some fair and well focussed criticisms of Donald Trump. However? It’s also important that Hillary Clinton was very devisive (eg. “To all the little girls…” speech).

    In the next election, I expect the divisiveness to be a scsleted mire than the last election. I expect the outcomes to be particularly destructive. 2021 is likely to be a disastrous year for intersectionality and identity politics. If you’re left leaning, it will be utopia.

    • Adam Kolasinski says

      If you are focusing on personalities, you are missing the entire point of the article. The general problem of the presidency accumulating a dangerous amount of power is a trend that’s built into the structure of our system, regardless of who occupies the office.

  5. Adam Kolasinski says

    Excellent article. The trend toward quasi-dictatorship is built into the structure of presidential systems such as ours. It is a wonder that it has taken our system this long to degenerate to where we are now. Similar systems degenerated much more quickly in Latin America and other places. Unfortunately, unless we do something to fundamentally change the Constitution soon, I fear it is only a matter of time before our presidents become Yankee versions of the classic Latin American Cadillo.

  6. David “Axis of Evil” Frum, the Canadian propagandist for the dreadful GW Bush administration, is now a political thinker; really?

    It is clear that Penny has no useful understanding of either American history or the structure of the Constitution.

    First, the Constitution contemplates a federated republic of sovereign states where the federal government has no jurisdiction over the activities of individuals living their states. It is framed as an republican oligarchy where the only function of the House of Representatives is to initiate bills for raising revenue. As ratified, the members of the Senate were to be elected by the legislatures in the several states. The “pluribus” in “e pluribus unum” refers to the states, not the people in the states. The “We the People” nonsense is, and always was, just propaganda; “bubba bait” for the rubes as Bill Clinton would say.

    All of the power in the Constitution is in the Senate and the Executive. The Judiciary is and always has been completely a creature of the Senate and Executive and the Judiciary has been re-writing the Constitution to please its masters since 1803.

    Granted, it is a bad constitution but a bad constitution from the 18th C. is likely much better than anything that could be cobbled together today by political thinkers like David Frum and his ilk. Further, amendment is impossible because there is no possibility of reaching a popular consensus on any imaginable proposed amendment.

    Second; the rebellion was understood to be against the king in parliament, not particularly the king. Sadly, the constitution the young aristos who co-opted the revolution came up with was a parody of the British model where all real power is vested in the Senate, the equivalent of the House of Lords.

    Finally, from 1800 to 1913 the US government functioned under the Constitution no differently than it would have under the Articles of Confederation because the Senate and Executive avoided like the plague raising national taxes, which would have required involving the House of Representatives. Consequently, the House, as a political institution, never developed into a useful check on the Senate, Executive and Judiciary. The only times the House is important is when, like now, there is a falling out between the Senate, the Judiciary and the Executive. Both Lincoln and Roosevelt were able to use the House to their advantage in such situations.

    However, it was only after 1913 when the progressive amendments gave the federal government the power to tax individuals directly and removed the election of Senators from the state legislatures that the true awfulness of the “Miracle in Philadelphia” was revealed.

    All that has happened since 1913 is that the US government has completed the transition from an unrepresentative republican oligarchy with limited power to an unrepresentative tyrannical oligarchy with unlimited power. But that is the fate of all republics according to Machiavelli.

  7. Mark English says

    If you think this is TDS, read “The Cult of the Presidency” by Gene Heally. This has been going on for a long time, and the trend is only accelerating.

  8. Obama was the only President to keep the US at war every day he was in office. He took the two wars that spilled over from the previous administration and added even more.

    Alistair Penny was and is bizarrely silent about this towering achievement.

    • I am no Obama shill by any stretch; however, I think Obama suffered from the entrenched deep state to some extent as well. In 2008, he was anointed the DNC nomination (since we now know the primaries are a sham) likely to save HRC. Everyone, even my most Leftist friends felt McCain had it wrapped up. When Obama won, it was suddenly “omg, now what do we do” and the candidate with the great slogan brought in all the WJC staffers. He was totally unprepared to win. The only difference is that the deep-state could manipulate him (Reid and Pelosi + the military/industrial establishment) to continue their choices since he really didn’t have much going except for the reaching out to Iran while he was a candidate. It isn’t surprising his presidency was marred by constant warfare when you consider the community organizer in him spent his time focused on social justice warfare and injecting his socialist-style views on American society rather than focusing outward. I felt he left the rest to the deep-state who never met a war they didn’t like. That’s why so many foreign policy decisions seemed like lunacy — like ignoring the uprisings in the middle east while destabilizing Libya and the yellow-line in the sand in Libya. Those weren’t his ideas or anything he even gave a hoot about, but someone was whispering in his ear to say something and the World understood it to be just words and not substance so they ignored him.

  9. The blurb about the complainers of Executive Orders is missing context. President Obama used Exec Orders to create law from whole cloth. His very own words were that he had a pen and a phone and if Congress would not do something he would. Trump has done no such thing and actually has provided Congress with time and opportunity to make changes — an ultimatum — before doing things like the DACA repeal.

    Now, the bit about “GOP not complaining about HIS E.O.s” misses that the bulk of E.O.s have nothing to do with “making Law” but are formality. Take a look at the list of E.O.s for Trump in 2017/2018 and you’ll see the majority by far are formality (Ethics for Exec Branch) and REPEALS or Amendments to EOs put in place by the prior. President Obama’s EO list looks the same and the heartburn over his EOs began after his “pen and phone” remarks which, of course, the MSM “spun” in a very non-inflammatory way. It’s very similar to all the rah rah cheerleading when Harry Reid dumped the filibuster for nominations even upon NUMEROUS warnings from both sides of the aisle of the ramifications when the Dems were not in control. Now, it’s OMG! The Dems say Romney never paid his taxes….then when asked later smirk, “we won didn’t we?” and you wonder why Trump got elected even when women, who were negotiating and being paid 6+ figure sums by big Dem backers came forward that they were met with speculation. I wonder how many were paid for with Weinstein money?

    E.O.s are “supposed” to be documentation for how the President formally passes down instructions to their branch so that the game of Phonebooth doesn’t occur like we see in many large organizations where there are obvious disconnects between Leadership and Worker. That is especially true in a political organization like the Executive branch where a large # of the workers are anti-Trumpers just as in 2016/2020 the next President will find an Executive branch populated by anti-Them.

  10. “Trump is not normal, moral, decent, or thoughtful.”

    Neither were Woodrow Wilson, Richard Nixon, nor Barack Obama. They were better spoken with better public impulse control, but still narcissistic, ideological, and authoritarian. Those characteristics rule out thoughtfulness.

    I dare say these are part of the job qualifications for the Imperial Presidency, since those examples are not exhaustive.

    • I think being moral rules out a desire to be a politician beyond the local level once you begin to say what polls well, versus what you really feel. Regardless of political leaning you face this pressure in our politically correct society. What fascinates me is how the centrists no longer exist. Remember the “blue dog democrats” of the Clinton era? The tea-party, so derided by the left, was an attempt to focus on conservationism in terms of limited government/finance without all the religious right aspects. I suspect a big driver for the derision and defaming by the Left was that it attracted the moderate/blue-dog democrats when it wasn’t being slandered with innuendo laden slang.

  11. Carrol Endiskys says

    Nothing much new presented by the writer here. Aggragation of power to the U.S. presidency has been going on for a long time, and has been formally recognized for at least 45 years. FYI: please read “The Imperial Presidency” by historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. from 1973 (Summary Link:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imperial_Presidency )

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