During the election of 2016, I confess I sometimes thought things could get so bad under Donald Trump that I’d want to emigrate. The squall-like street violence outside of his planned rally in Chicago was particularly ominous, and made me begin to believe the analogies to 1968: Trump was even encouraging supporters to hit back. The sense of panic was often heightened online, with digital mobs — some real, some half-composed of bots — descending into the fray harassing my peers and colleagues. Given Trump’s odd fascination with nuclear weapons, it seemed like farce could turn into disaster.
And then he won and our politics mostly turned back into their regularly scheduled reality-tv show. The hysteria remained, but now it wasn’t so threatening. It was turning into an opera buffa. Mostly.
The Atlantic has put out a special issue checking in on the health of liberal democracy, and its prognosis is dire. Mostly, it turns out that the problem with democracy is that people who eat $19 burgers are getting outvoted by people who eat $1.99 burgers. Madison was against mob rule, we’re reminded, in an article that implicitly laments the demise of mediating quasi-aristocratic institutions. Mediocre ex-friends are now running the sh**hole countries of Central Europe, we’re told. And my friend David Frum informs us that Trump is playing an important role in the destruction of democracy here at home.
There is much to agree with in Frum’s diagnosis. Trump does sometimes talk more like a wannabe Duce — “my armies,” etc. — rather than the public servant atop a republican institution. But many of the deformations of our constitutional order that are laid at Trump’s feet in this indictment precede him.
Of Trump’s trade policies, Frum writes, “All economic sectors must absorb the new truth that executive action can send their profits soaring . . . or tumbling.” While Trump may indeed be a bigger, more erratic activist on trade issues than his predecessors, the fact of the matter is that this is not a “new truth” that dawned on us after he took office. Congress ceded trade authority to the president decades ago. Is Trump using this in a way that is unprecedented? Maybe, but for now the scale of his action is tiny. It is nothing compared to Bill Clinton’s 1993 Executive Order 12850, which granted China Most Favored Nation status. EO 12850 didn’t just send this or that company up or down for a quarter; it reordered global supply chains and financial flows for a generation. A study by David Autor, David Dorn, and Gordon Hanson showed that this change of our trading relationship transformed entire regions, increasing male unemployment and even reducing marriage rates. The run-on effects may be seen in everything from Michigan’s going Republican in 2016 to the shortening lifespans of white men.
Frum brings up ethical violations. It is true that Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns is ugly, and that the apparent special privileges China has granted his family’s businesses are discomfiting, especially given how quickly he seemed to soften his positions on China once in office. But ethical violations of this sort, even if they have worsened by degree over time, are not a new problem. Perhaps the modern presidential era of dirty dealing began with Moammar Qaddafi’s loans to erstwhile beer brewer, “professional redneck,” and presidential brother Billy Carter. Ronald Reagan would later break the taboo against paid speeches by presidents and former presidents. The Clintons, by their own account “dead broke” upon leaving the White House, subsequently amassed a family fortune to rival the Bush estate. They never went into oil or professional sports; they created a global paid-influence operation masquerading as a charity.
Shameful as it is, the attempt to use legal means to restrict voting rolls likewise predates Trump. And Frum’s only evidence that Trump is adding to it is that he is so unpopular he makes it a more urgent priority for Republicans. Trump spends too much time talking about football players and the national anthem, but to say that he has “conscripted” NFL team owners into a war is to overegg the pudding. Team owners — and many NFL fans — were sympathetic to Trump’s argument before he weighed in.
Trump has been successfully constrained where American institutions are strong — in the courts, for instance. He has been given license by institutions that are weak, such as Congress. But in this he is the inheritor of constitutional decay, not the cause of it. He inherited an executive branch that will operate, as Obama described, “with a pen and a phone” when Congress fails to bend to its will. He inherited a presidency with broad authority to take trade action. He also inherited American involvement in nearly half a dozen civil wars in the Middle East, most conducted without even the pretense of congressional authorization or oversight.
Perhaps the fault is not in our reality-tv president so much as it’s in ourselves.
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