Among a very long list of harms inflicted upon the United States by Barack Obama and his party, perhaps the worst was Caesarism. Obama relished the worship of millions in 2008. From his star turn at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, he was treated not as a political candidate but as a savior. Progressives fell into a swoon, typified by Newsweek editor Evan Thomas’s 2008 comment that “I mean in a way Obama’s standing above the country, above — above the world, he’s sort of God.”
Now, a similar kind of unreasoning adulation is greeting (improbably enough) Donald Trump. Fred Barnes reports that a focus group of Trump supporters is swept up in a kind of worship, too: “He’s not just their favorite candidate. Their tie to him is almost mystical. He’s a kind of political savior, someone who says what they think.”
If Obama had accepted the reverence of the crowd but governed as a normal president, his sin would have been merely aesthetic. But he did not. Contempt for law and tradition has been the hallmark of his presidency. His lawlessness makes Richard Nixon’s look penny ante.
In addition to his blatantly illegal grant of legal status to 4 million illegal immigrants — a move Obama himself declared he lacked the authority to make — Obama has acted as an autocrat in dozens of other instances. Without any legal basis, he imposed a fine on BP after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and unilaterally suspended offshore drilling. He bypassed the plain language of Obamacare multiple times, whenever enforcing the unpopular or unworkable aspects of the law would be politically inconvenient. (The employer mandate, for example, was supposed to go into effect on January 1, 2014.) He attempted to make recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) when the Senate was not in recess. He waived the work requirements of the 1996 welfare reform law. Earlier this year, the Associated Press reported that the Obama administration “set a record again for censoring government files or outright denying access to them last year under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act.” His administration has ignored repeated congressional subpoenas, while his attorney general was found in contempt of Congress.
President Obama perhaps calculated that he could get away with this lawlessness because of his uniqueness. The Constitution provides a remedy for lawless executives — but while Obama has arguably committed acts that merit impeachment, he knows that his status as the first black president gives him immunity. Impeachment would tear the country apart.
The courts have thwarted some of Obama’s power grabs. The Supreme Court has rebuked him several times. The NLRB appointments were reversed, and the immigration waiver has been judicially stayed for now. But much damage remains.
Obama’s legacy is a profound weakening of respect for law and tradition in this country. That Democrats are fine with this isn’t a huge surprise. They’ve long demonstrated that they are ends-justify-the-means types. Since the era of Woodrow Wilson, they’ve decided that if they cannot get their preferred policies through legislatures, they’re happy to see them imposed by courts. If not by courts, then by executive fiat. They conveniently uphold a “living” Constitution — which is pretty much no Constitution at all but just the raw exercise of power by those in robes.
If we are not, as John Adams said, a ‘government of laws and not of men’ we will soon drift into the kind of despotism that characterizes nations without a strong legal tradition.
Conservatives and Republicans, by contrast, have traditionally stood for the rule of law — with all of its frustrations and inefficiencies. Respect for the rule of law is more precious than any given policy outcome. If we are not, as John Adams said, a “government of laws and not of men” we will soon drift into the kind of despotism that characterizes nations without a strong legal tradition. Putinism is destroying what is best in Russia. Peronism devastated Argentina. Franco crushed liberty in Spain for half a century. The Castro brothers have imposed their tyranny on Cuba for longer than that. The list of countries that succumbed to Caesarism is very, very long.
The appeal of Trump falls into this category. Though one might suppose that his borderline pathological narcissism, his arrested emotional development, and his nearly incoherent ramblings would exclude him from consideration for county clerk, he sits atop the GOP field. The message from a segment of the Republican party is: “Okay, we’re an autocracy now. So let’s have this guy govern by fiat.”
Unless the rest of the Republican party makes a different case — namely that the answer to Obamaism is a return to law — it may be game over for self-government in the world’s oldest democracy.