George H. W. Bush gave up power quietly and turned to charity work and occasional ceremonial speaking after his reelection defeat in 1992. George W. Bush — like Jerry Ford in 1977 and Ronald Reagan in 1989 — did the same when Barack Obama assumed power in 2009.
Recent Democrats emeriti — Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama — apparently had a different vision of the post-presidency, unlike the quiet retirement of Lyndon Johnson back to his ranch in 1969. The three saw politics in more Manichean terms, as an existential struggle far too important to cease at the end of a presidential tenure.
Carter freelanced abroad for 30 years in successful quest for a Nobel Prize, but he often undercut presidential diplomacy. He regularly weighed in on the shortcomings of his successors — in a way he would have deeply resented had either Ford or Richard Nixon done the same.
No sooner had Bill Clinton left the presidency than he and Hillary Clinton began the grand plan for a return to the White House in 2009, and, after a setback, then again in 2017. Theirs was a two-decade long post-presidency of glad-handing, politicking, and, to use a euphemism, quid pro quo fund raising.
Barack Obama has already weighed in, including while overseas, on the shortcomings of his successor. His aides, led by Ben Rhodes, are at the forefront of the “Resistance” to thwart the Trump administration. Susan Rice and John Kerry comment regularly on supposed Trump foreign-policy blunders, as do James Clapper and John Brennan — usually in proactive fashion to deflect news accounts that may reflect poorly on their own past tenures.
But all that said, we have never quite seen anything like the opposition of the so-called Resistance to the elected presidency that followed the Obama tenure.
There were the initial false charges that pro-Trump Russians had shut down power grids in Vermont. There were frivolous suits claiming that voting machines in three states were rigged. There was an organized, anti-constitutional effort to subvert the Electoral College so that it would not reflect the vote tallies of individual states. On Inauguration Day, there were congressional boycotts of the swearing-in ceremony. There were demonstrations at which, to take one example, Madonna envisioned blowing up the Trump White House.
An entire genre of assassination chic followed. Politicians, celebrities, actors, academics, and wannabees variously reenacted beheading Donald Trump, stabbing him to death, shooting him, torching him, hanging him, or, in the words of Robert DeNiro, dreaming of punching Trump in the face. Few in the media were bothered by the imagery or threats. Yet sometimes the hysteria became real violence — as when Bernie Sanders supporter James Hodgkinson’s shot prominent Republican politicians practicing for a charity baseball game, gravely wounding Republican House whip Steven Scalise, or when libertarian senator Rand Paul (present at the Scalise shooting) was attacked and injured by a disturbed neighbor and proponent of socialized medicine.
Formal efforts followed to impeach Trump in his first months of governance. Some evoked the emoluments clause of the Constitution, claiming that Trump had sought the presidency only to profit. Others sought recourse in the 25th Amendment, hoping that he could be removed because of senility, insanity, or debility. A Yale psychiatrist, who has never met Trump, was brought before Congress to confirm that the president was psychologically unfit to continue his office — and then wondered whether he might be physically restrained and forced to undergo examination (apparently unaware that she was getting quite close to advocating a coup d’état and also channeling the old Soviet remedy to political undesirables).
Deep-state bureaucrats and holdover Obama appointees refused to carry out presidential orders and became causes célèbres for violating their oaths of office. Justices were cherry-picked for stays of presidential directives on the basis on their liberal fides — until higher courts overturned their rulings. The Democratic congressional minority made wholescale effort to slow down confirmation of almost every presidential appointment.
Nonpartisan media research organizations found that 90 percent of all news stories concerning President Trump portrayed him negatively — an unprecedented negative rating. Late-night television morphed into 24/7 anti-Trump diatribes.
Journalists as diverse as the New York Times’ Jim Rutenberg and Univision’s Jorge Ramos insisted that reporters could no longer be professionally disinterested in the age of Trump but must become activists to oppose the president and his agendas.
Indeed, the WikiLeaks trove revealed that marquee journalists such as the New York Times’ Glenn Thrush and the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank had actively colluded with the Clinton campaign to massage their news accounts and commentaries. The genre of “fake news” was born — ranging from the trivial of claiming in racist fashion that Trump had removed a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. from the West Wing to the mythologies of a purported Trump plan to invade Mexico. CNN’s journalists and employees were sometimes fired for inventing anti-Trump narratives, or caught on a hot mic wishing for the president’s jet to crash, or reduced to using scatology to express their hatred. The network achieved a 93 percent negative treatment of all Trump news.
Obama political appointments had sought FISA court orders to surveille Trump associates, then unmasked the names and leaked them to friendly journalists, first, to hamper the Trump campaign, later to subvert the Trump transition. A Clinton opposition dossier, based on paid and unnamed Russian sources, peddled false stories to the FBI and Obama-administration Justice Department officials. It may well have been used to obtain the FISA orders.
Career FBI officers used government communications to express their hatred for the new president. Such bias may have fueled their efforts to warp their investigations. The director of the FBI knowingly leaked confidential notes of his meetings with the president. He probably passed on at least one classified document to a friend, with the instruction that it then be passed to a friendly journalist. James Comey’s hope was to ensure an investigation of the president by a special counsel — a position soon to be filled by his close associate and friend.
The deep-state resistance of bureaucrats ranged from the petty and trivial of refusing to hang the picture of the current president in their offices to the more substantial move of slowing down or refusing outright to carry out presidential directives. America had not seen such opposition to an incoming president since 1861.
If any such resistance had faced an incoming Barack Obama, the cries of outrage, media fury, and legal recourse would have proved overwhelming and been framed as a constitutional crisis.
If any such resistance had faced an incoming Barack Obama, the cries of outrage, media fury, and legal recourse would have proved overwhelming and been framed as a constitutional crisis. But no such pushback occurred. Instead, in 2009, power was transferred peacefully if not amicably.
Yet, so far, the Resistance, despite helping to drive down presidential approval ratings to the low 40 percent range, has not stopped the Trump agenda. The Mueller investigation will likely settle for face-saving charges against a few Trump officials for crimes not envisioned under its original directives. Its own biases and the FBI’s involvement with the discredited Steele dossier may result in a number of successful appeals of those who confessed or acquittals of those charged.
The frustrated Resistance is starting to morph into a more serious crisis of nullification, if not insurrection.
California has just declared itself, in antebellum South Carolina fashion, a sanctuary state. State law supposedly now transcends both local California municipalities that had chosen not to become sanctuary cities and federal immigration law itself. The law is the logical result of the governor’s and the popular culture’s pushback against Trump. Jerry Brown in the past had evoked God to cast aspersion on Trump’s morality: “I don’t think — President Trump has a fear of the Lord, the fear of the wrath of God, which leads one to more humility.” And Brown toured abroad as state commander in chief, as he assured foreign leaders that California was to be dealt with as a near-autonomous country.
One-third of state residents, according to polls, favor Calexit, or withdrawal from the United States. Central to California’s insurrectionist chic is the idea that it is unique and no other state had the moral courage or right to follow its example. California would probably go ballistic, after all, if during the Obama administration, the governor of West Virginia or Kentucky had visited China to cement coal-export agreements that countered Obama policies, or if Utah had declared the Endangered Species Act null and void within its environs, or if Mississippi had decided that federal gun-registration laws would not fully apply within its Second Amendment–sanctuary state.
California apparently has sensed that its nullification efforts are provoking federal officials, and it now scurries to assure Washington that it does not mean to fully oppose all federal immigration efforts. In theory, state officials who bar federal officials from their mandated duties would be subject to federal criminal charges of obstruction. In a more concrete vein, the quarter-built overpasses of the state’s already ossified high-speed rail project — increasingly dependent on federal funds for reactivation — are beginning to resemble an eerie Stonehenge.
Perhaps not by coincidence, the Congress just passed tax-reform legislation that does not allow local and state taxes above $10,000 to be deducted from federal tax returns. For a state that has among the highest sales taxes, the highest property tax assessments in the nation, and highest state-income-tax brackets (rising above 13 percent on the top brackets), the new law doubles the effective state tax rate.
Given that there are a number of low- or no-tax states in California’s neighborhood, and given that the California Democratic party is incapable of reducing the state income rate, the new law may encourage some affluent retirees to flee the state. It would not take many to undermine a key source of state revenue. Note that of some 40 million residents, only about 150,000 individual or household tax returns account for about half of all California income-tax revenue — itself nearly 40 percent of all state income. Note also that progressive California is understandably worried that its affluent tax-paying golden geese may be sacrificed, even while the vast majority of its population will receive sizable tax cuts from the new federal law.
In tit-for-tat fashion, will the state seek more nullification measures to push back against the federal government? Legislators are now dreaming of redefining state income tax as deductible “charitable contributions” in order to reinstate federal tax deductions. That pathetic gambit would land an individual filer in the IRS pokey.
Again, California legislators apparently do not realize that any other state could do the same and thereby nullify the entire federal tax system. If they persist, no doubt the Trump Department of Justice would have good grounds to seek indictments against state officials for conspiracy to commit federal income-tax fraud.
So will large blue states continue their defiance of federal laws, whether they involve immigration nullification or their own legalization of marijuana growing and selling? It depends.
Black and Hispanic unemployment rates are now at record lows.
Black and Hispanic unemployment rates are now at record lows. Wealthy California high-tech firms like Apple are eager to take advantage of new tax laws and plan to bring back billions of offshored capital that will enrich state coffers.
Declines in illegal immigration, along with an economy running at 3 percent GDP growth, are pushing up the compensation of low-skilled workers in a way that clumsy state-mandated raises in the minimum wage could not.
Ironically, mega-states such as California, Illinois, and New York were close to the brink of insolvency under the calcified Obama economy. But they may enjoy record growth in 2018 that for now mitigates their own regrettable financial decisions. In other words, an expanding economy could turn resistance and nullification into a mostly boutique symbolic enterprise, as thousands of blue-state officials ceremonially damn the policies that may alone offer them salvation.
— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won, released in October from Basic Books.