Donald Trump and the Case for a Limited Presidency

TL;DR: It is dangerous for any one person to hold too much government power. Over time the power of the president has expanded through a variety of large and small steps. This has left the American public vulnerable whenever a “bad” president is actually elected. This has become worse over the last several decades and few political parties have done anything to really address it. If those who oppose Trump only focus upon any of his specific policies they find negative or dangerous, then they leave us all open to other dangerous presidents in the future.

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The election of Donald Trump to the presidency should mark a time for serious reflection by Americans. Overlooking anything about Trump himself, the entire race was incredibly divided, even by the standards of recent American history. The hatred and anger on both sides was visceral, and the response of many Americans in the wake of the election displayed exactly how high tensions have become. We’ve all seen the protests, breakdowns, and even shattered friendships in the months following the election. While there are many things within American politics that need to be addressed by boots-on-the-ground activists, something that I see continually being ignored is the need to reassert basic institutions that limit the ability of the federal government in general, and the president in particular, to do harm.

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Julius Caesar represents a great example of a popular military and political figure turned tyrant. In the end his assassination itself was conducted largely because many were afraid he was becoming a king.

There is a reason that the United States is a constitutional republic. The American
founders were impressive students of history; they knew the tendency for a political regime to sink into tyranny. The most classic case of this would be the decline of Republican Rome into an Empire, and more modern examples like the rise of Napoleon after the French Revolution and the ascendence of Hitler in the wake of World War I. History is filled with cases of populist leaders who were able to exploit political tensions and ignorance to further their own despotic interests. With this in mind, we must always look at how the fundamental institutions of government serve to limit power, something that was keenly on the mind of those forging the constitution: indeed, there were those that were skeptical of having a president at all. One can appreciate the implicit danger of having one person with popular support in charge of America’s Armed Forces.

On these grounds, the presidency was originally intended to be a position with fairly limited powers. Indeed, this can be seen simply by looking at the constitution. The president’s big discretionary powers are in crafting treaties, leading the military, and vetoing bills, all the while under threat of impeachment if any serious misconduct is committed. Yet over time the presidency has increased in power and influence. Over the years that has occurred through a combination of small increases power as well as dramatic jumps. Once a president has performed a certain action, then if the action is unchallenged, this immediately creates a precedent for all future presidents to draw upon. In this way, actions which are innocuous, or appropriate only as extreme measures, can provide a new standard for normal presidential action.

Even if all presidents had deeply respected the limits imposed on them in the
constitution, the power of the presidency could still naturally have increased in size and prominence in the way described above over time. However, in reality presidents are often very ambitious, and are quite eager to seize as much power as possible in order to shape America in their preferred image.  There have been a number of presidents (for example: Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Lyndon B. Johnson) who have launched large and radical initiatives, increasing federal power and changing our fundamental conception of the role of the presidency in American government.

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Perhaps one of the more obvious examples of what I am talking about here is FDR’s attempt to pass legislation allowing him to put more justices on the supreme court. This was purely a political move as many justices had shot down some of FDR’s pet New Deal legislation as being unconstitutional

This has progressed to the point in our day where we expect presidents to be something far more akin to central commanders of government than what was initially envisioned. Indeed, in the minds of most Americans the great presidents as ones who, well, did great things, rather than those were simply great at upholding the simple role of the executive branch while working with, rather than leading and commanding, congress. This is understandable, even if it is regrettable. The president is, by his very nature, more human and relatable than congress. We like to think of one person sitting down and passing commands to others, one central and strong person, rather than a hive of decentralized and often competing interests and visions that we see in the congress.

In a way, we all want to be dictators. It is incredibly natural to believe we know precisely what is right and good for society, as well as how this should be implemented. Therefore when a representative we mostly agree with takes office it is easy to look the other way when their actions might slightly exceed the role of their station. So what if the president did something ever-so-slightly out of bounds? They did it for a good reason. This is all well and good until a less respectable official steps into office. The problem I am describing is very true of our own time.

The last sixteen years have been a story of the increasing power of the presidency. Related imageUnder George Bush we saw increased power to impede upon individual freedom and privacy in the name of security, as well as an expanded ability to launch military actions. Barack Obama also increased presidential power by making the use of drone strikes in foreign countries commonplace, authorizing the killing of an American citizen abroad without a trial, increasing the ability of the federal government to use surveillance on its citizens, and providing an increased precedent for presidential action via executive orders without the approval of congress. Many Democrats, frustrated by years of Republican-instilled gridlock within the American government, were perfectly happy when Obama effectively declared he would do everything in his power to enact the change that he wished to see through executive action, rather than by attempting to work with Congress. Even as Obama was announcing his intentions to do everything possible to move his agenda forward without Congress, the forces that would win Trump the election were already at work. Donald Trump has more power because of the actions of Barack Obama and many of his predecessors.

Whatever Obama’s positive legacy might be, those on the left have him to thank for precedents that have increased Trump’s power. If Americans had classically cared more about ensuring there were strong limitations on federal power, rather than looking at the short term gains of expanding power, this almost certainly would not have been the case. This short-sightedness by President Obama and many who were sympathetic to him in regard to presidential powers shows precisely why it is we have to look at the long term health of institutions limiting power, rather than simply approach the ideal of dictator.  

Both Republicans and Democrats are guilty of this; it is a problem of the right and the left, although I do not care to remark upon who is the guiltier party.

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The slowly increasing power of the White House might be compared to someone dipping further and further into their savings account. The individual in question might always justify to themselves why they are spending the money they told themselves they would save. Perhaps they really deserve a vacation or just want to be able to let loose and indulge in an impulse buy. Slowly but surely their savings decrease to a low level that leaves them insecure. Then if there is ever a real disaster, say that this person gets into a car accident, they might have no way to pay for this. Just as one is removing one’s ability to pay a large unexpected expenditure in the case of one’s savings, the American populace has been removing its protections against unscrupulous officials in the case of electing a president. When a Republican is in power many conservative discussion on federal overreach and the role of the constitution tends to silence itself, or at least become more quiet. The same is true of the left. While this silence might be convenient in the short run, in the long term it leaves all Americans more vulnerable.

What we need is to take this opportunity and realize the problem. This needs to be a wake up call to the American public. The election of Donald Trump to the presidency reminds us all precisely why a limited presidency is important. For a single election to invest so much power in the hands of a single person gives that person the ability to do an incredible amount of damage. This is just one reason why in America we do not elect dictators. No one person should have unlimited power over the United States government, and limiting and dividing power is almost always the superior option.

For those who oppose Donald Trump, opposing his specific negative actions should be only one concern. The more important point in the broader context must be to rethinking the role of the presidency and determining how to scale back the power of the president to less dangerous levels. If the only lesson we learn from the Trump presidency is that “Donald Trump is bad”, or moreover that any specific group of people is bad, then the stage might already be set for more Trumps in the future. Classically both the right and the left have been happy to sit on the sidelines and allow the president to accumulate additional powers. Hopefully this will remind both sides why a limited presidency is so important.

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2 thoughts on “Donald Trump and the Case for a Limited Presidency

  1. Julius Caesar

    What I’m surprised you did not mention is the role of checks and balances. The article stayed mostly within the executive branch but how should the other two branches be incorporated into, what I take to be your point, a control of unfettered centralised power?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment!

      Yeah, I tried to focus on exactly what was wrong with excessive executive power and the way that it has been increasing, more than the systems of checks and balances themselves. I am not an expert in this field, and so I am sure that there are much more nuanced views here. Basically, however, I think that returning as much power to congress as possible, or having federal agencies be more accountable to congress, would be preferable. I don’t think that the judicial branch has much of a role to play beyond the role that it has already played in the Trump presidency, for instance, in ruling certain acts illegal or illegitimate when they are either of these things.


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