By Angelo Codevilla
February 29, 2016
The Obama years have brought America to the brink of transformation from constitutional republic into an empire ruled by secret deals promulgated by edicts. Civics classes used to teach: “Congress makes the laws, the president carries them out, judges decide controversies, and we citizens may be penalized only by a jury of our peers.”
Nobody believes that anymore, because no part of it has been true for a long time. Barack Obama stopped pretending that it is. During the twentieth century’s second half, both parties and all branches of government made a mockery of the Constitution of 1789. Today’s effective constitution is: “The president can do whatever he wants so long as one-third of the Senate will sustain his vetoes and prevent his conviction upon impeachment.”
Obama has been our first emperor. A Donald Trump presidency, far from reversing the ruling class’s unaccountable hold over American life, would seal it. Because Trump would act as our second emperor, he would render well-nigh impossible our return to republicanism.
Donald Trump Is Everything that Has Ruined Us
Today, nearly all the rules under which we live are made, executed, and adjudicated by agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and countless boards and commissions. Congress no longer passes real laws. Instead, it passes broad grants of authority, the substance of the president’s bureaucracy decides in cooperation with interest groups.
Nancy Pelosi’s remark that we would know Obamacare’s contents only after it passed was true, and applicable to nearly all modern legislation. The courts allow this, pretending that bureaucrats sitting with their chosen friends merely fill in details. Some details! Americans have learned that, as they say in DC, if you are not sitting at one of these tables of power, “you’re on the menu.”
Trump’s claim to be an enemy of rule-by-inside-deal is counterintuitive. His career and fortune have been as participant and beneficiary in the process by which government grants privileges to some and inflicts burdens on others. Crony capitalism is the air he breathes, the only sea in which he swims, his second nature. His recipe for “fixing” America, he tells us, is to appoint “the best people”—he names some of his fellow crony capitalists—to exercise even more unaccountable power and to do so with “unbelievable speed.” He assures us that, this time, it will be to “make America great again.” Peanuts’ Lucy might reply: “This time, for sure!”
Deal-Making Expands Government
In recent years, Obama and the Democratic Party (with the Republican leadership’s constant collusion) have prevented Congress from voting to appropriate funds for individual programs and agencies. They have lumped all government functions into “continuing resolutions” or “omnibus bills.” This has moved the government’s decision-making into back rooms, shielding elected officials from popular scrutiny, relieving them of the responsibility for supporting or opposing what the government does. This has enabled Obama to make whatever deals have pleased him and his Republican cronies.
Trump touts his own capacity to make good deals. But good for whom? And who is to say what is good? Who or what causes would benefit from continuing government by secret deals? Who or what would lose? Trump’s stated objective is to wield whatever power might be necessary to accomplish whatever objectives upon which he—in consultation with whomever—might choose from time to time. But the difference between Trump and Obama amounts only to whatever difference may exist between each emperor’s set of cronies.
By contrast, the U.S. Constitution of 1789, as explained by James Madison, envisages a continuous mutual effort at persuasion among the American people’s many parts, to “refine and enlarge the public views” and to result in ”decisions based on the “cool and deliberate sense of the community.” For two centuries, the government’s main decisions have happened through open congressional proceedings and recorded votes. That’s the republic we used to have.
Rule By Will, Not Law
Like Obama, Trump is not about persuading anybody. Both are about firing up their supporters to impose their will on their opponents while insulting them. Throughout history, this style of politics has been the indispensable ingredient for wrecking republics, the “final cause” that transforms free citizens into the subjects of emperors.
This style of politics has grown, along with a ruling class that rejects the notion that no person may rule another without that person’s consent. As I have shown at length elsewhere, America is now ruled by a uniformly educated class of persons that occupies the commanding heights of bureaucracy, of the judiciary, education, the media, and of large corporations, and that wields political power through the Democratic Party. Its control of access to prestige, power, privilege, and wealth exerts a gravitational pull that has made the Republican Party’s elites into its satellites.
This class’s fatal feature is its belief that ordinary Americans are a lesser intellectual and social breed. Its increasing self-absorption, its growing contempt for whoever won’t bow to it, its dependence for votes on sectors of society whose grievances it stokes, have led it to break the most basic rule of republican life: deeming its opposition illegitimate. The ruling class insists on driving down the throats of its opponents the agendas of each its constituencies and on injuring persons who stand in the way. This has spawned a Newtonian reaction, a hunger, among what may be called the “country class” for returning the favor with interest.
The Cycle of Revenge Rarely Slows
Ordinary Americans have endured being insulted by the ruling class’s favorite epitaphs—racist, sexist, etc., and, above all, stupid; they have had careers and reputations compromised by speaking the wrong word in front of the wrong person; endured dictates from the highest courts in the land that no means yes (King), that public means private (Kelo), that everyone is entitled to make up one’s meaning of life (Casey), but that whoever thinks marriage is exclusively between men and women is a bigot (Obergefell).
No wonder, then, that millions of Americans lose respect for a ruling class that disrespects them, that they identify with whomever promises some kind of turnabout against that class, and that they care less and less for the integrity of institutions that fail to protect them.
Trump’s voters expect precisely such turnabout. Within good measure, not only would this right any number of wrongs and restore some balance in our public life, it is also indispensable for impressing upon the ruling class and its constituents that they too have a stake in observing the limits and niceties that are explicit and implicit in our Constitution.
But not only do opposing sets of wrongs not make anything right. As I have argued (Sophocles did it a lot better), trying to stop the cycle of political payback with another round of it, while not utterly impossible, is well-nigh beyond human capacity.
Neither Obama nor Trump seem to know or care that cycles of reciprocal resentment, of insults and injuries paid back with ever more interest and ever less concern for consequences, are the natural fuel of revolutions—easy to start and soon impossible to stop. America’s founders, steeped in history as few of our contemporaries are, were acutely aware of how easily factional enmities deliver free peoples into the hands of emperors. America is already advanced in this vicious cycle. The only possible chance of returning it to republicanism lies in not taking the next turn, and in not following one imperial ruler with another.