Ever since the election, the alarmists have been hinting darkly that the inauguration of Donald Trump will be like the second coming of Adolf Hitler.
Hitler had absolute power with which to establish a dictatorship. President Trump won’t have anything even remotely resembling that.
In fact, far from being a Hitler, President Trump is more likely to find himself to be a Gulliver—a giant tied down hand and foot by Lilliputians.
How will President Trump’s power be limited? Let me count the ways:
First, there’s the legacy of his predecessor, Barack Obama. When the Republicans took back control of the House and the Senate, Mr. Obama made himself notorious by trying to run the country by executive authority. With the election of Donald Trump, he redoubled his efforts, promulgating stacks of new regulations and directives. Many of Obama’s regulations are onerous to American business. President Trump will have to scrap them to make real economic growth possible. And this, of course, is to say nothing of Mr. Trump’s promise to overhaul ObamaCare.
Second, there’s Congress: 535 seasoned, professional politicians—all of whom have agendas, ambitions and constituencies of their own, and each of whom has an ego every bit as outsized as Donald Trump’s. Just what will President Trump do when Congress refuses to follow his dictates? Tell them, “You’re fired”?
Third, there are the courts. As a candidate, Mr. Trump promised to appoint strict constructionist judges to the Supreme Court and other federal courts. If he keeps his promise—and it will be very difficult for him not to do so—he will be appointing judges who have a profound respect for our constitutional system of check and balances. Thus, if President Trump tries to make end runs around Congress and run the country by executive fiat—as President Obama did—he will find himself overruled by the courts on strict constructionist grounds—as President Obama was.
Fourth, there’s federalism. Blue states can refuse to cooperate with the Trump administration on the deportation of illegal immigrants and other significant policy matters. They can set tougher environmental standards than Washington—waging their own campaigns against global warming. And they can tie the Trump administration into knots by suing in the courts to block the implementation of policies they oppose.
Fifth, there’s bureaucratic inertia. Mr. Trump can talk glibly about abolishing whole cabinet departments in one fell swoop, but the fact remains that in the last half century only one cabinet department has actually been abolished—the Post Office. And that department was only nominally abolished since it was replaced by the U.S. Postal Service.
Cabinet departments and federal agencies are difficult to eliminate for a number of reasons. For one thing, they usually have cozy relationships with the businesses or organizations that they are supposed to oversee. Thus, they have powerful constituencies to lobby for their continued existence.
Furthermore, the agencies have long been adept at co-opting the political appointees who are put in charge of them. Rick Perry, the current Secretary-designate of the Department of Energy, may have advocated abolishing the DOE at one time. But once he starts luxuriating in the perks that come with being a cabinet secretary, how long do you suppose it will be before the department’s career bureaucrats persuade him that that the DOE has a “mission,” and that it is his “patriotic duty” to carry that mission forward?
Sixth, there’s public opposition. Mr. Trump’s inaugural will be the most heavily protested since Richard Nixon’s in 1969, when hordes of young radicals descended on Washington to throw rocks, tomatoes, smoke bombs and horse manure at the official guests, and to inaugurate their own choice for president—a pig. Beyond public protests, we can expect widespread passive resistance to the Trump administration’s policies—“sanctuary” for illegal aliens, for example.
Seventh, there’s the media. Mr. Trump has tried to avoid charges of conflict of interest by putting his assets in a trust and letting his two adult sons run his business empire. Not all experts agree that this is enough of a firewall to insulate him from his holdings. Unquestionably, he will be dogged by charges of conflict of interest for the whole of his administration. His billionaire cabinet cronies will likely face the same problem. The media will have a field day investigating these charges and painting the Trump administration as the most corrupt since the Gilded Age. President Trump may find that he’s too busy defending himself from charges of ethical misconduct to focus on actual governing.
The American people are not stupid. They know that Donald Trump is an oaf, a plutocrat, an egomaniac and a windbag. They voted for him for two reasons: First, because they decided that Hillary Clinton was just as ethically challenged as he; and second, because Trump sold them on the idea that a tough businessman like him could cut through the government bullshit and get this country moving again. The people will put up with him for only as long as he shows that he can get results. If he fails, they’ll dump him without a second thought.
To accomplish anything at all, Trump will have to do what is contrary to his go-it-alone nature. He will have to adopt a collegial approach to governing. He will have to build democratic majorities that support his policy goals. He will have to compromise and conciliate.
Trump is not Hitler. He cannot simply will his programs into existence. He must learn to be an effective democratic leader. Otherwise, for the next four years he will be Gulliver, earthbound and impotent.
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