Commentary: How did we come to have a rogue presidency?

Commentary: How did we come to have a rogue presidency?

  • 0
President Donald Trump arrives at the White House in Washington, D.C., on  September 26, 2019. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images/TNS) **FOR USE WITH THIS STORY ONLY**

President Donald Trump arrives at the White House in Washington, D.C., on September 26, 2019. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images/TNS) **FOR USE WITH THIS STORY ONLY**

The media has given us blanket coverage of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's announcement of an official House impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump's apparent attempt to use congressionally appropriated funds to Ukraine to trade a desperate Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy for an investigation of Trump's political rival at home. But few commentators have explored how we have arrived at this juncture. And I don't mean an investigation of Trump and Rudy Giuliani's activities leading up to the July 25 call between the two presidents.

I mean how did we arrive at a presidency grown so powerful that one incumbent could create such chaos. And I'm not talking about the Ukrainian president here.

At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, the Founders were concerned above all with the potential for tyranny, which had undone previous republics. Having just experienced tyranny by a foreign military, parliament and king, the document's Framers most feared the new nation's government and freedoms would be corrupted by a standing army, the influence of more powerful foreign governments, excesses of majority rule and tyranny by the executive.

At the federal level, they instituted a system of checks and balances of rival government branches, which they knew would be inefficient, but believed would be a bulwark against tyranny - the outcome they most wanted to avoid. In a republic, the Framers believed that the legislative branch would naturally be the most powerful branch, but they also wanted the executive and judicial branches to have some independence from it to check its potential excesses.

Thus, these wise men intended for the president to merely execute domestic laws passed by Congress (the executive did have a limited veto of legislation that could be overridden by the legislature) and carry out congressionally made foreign policy abroad, especially commanding troops on the battlefield if Congress declared war.

Fast forwarding to the modern day. Despite all the pride that we have in crowing about checks and balances, the system has broken down - and it did so long before Donald Trump's arrival. However, Trump's penchant for authoritarianism is especially worrisome.

Presidents since Franklin Roosevelt have been amassing so much executive power that the office would be barely recognizable to the Framers, who envisioned a modest office. Presidents now ignore laws passed by Congress; erroneously claim to be the nation's "sole organ" of foreign policy; conduct unilateral, and sometimes secret, wars without congressional approval; stonewall legitimate congressional oversight by ignoring legislative subpoenas or claim the constitutionally bogus doctrine of "executive privilege; and flout congressional legislative intent by reprogramming, suspending, or impounding legally appropriated funds or evading enforcement of congressionally passed statutes. Trump and other recent presidents have done all of these things.

But how did we get to such a powerful plebiscitary presidency? This is a fancy term for an elected monarch - a potentiality that gave the Framers the most heartburn. They feared that a demagogic president could legitimate his actions by manipulating public opinion, so as to accrue so much power as to be very dangerous.

Congress, through the abdication of its own constitutionally given powers, during the 20th century and beyond, has ceased to be an effective check on an imperial executive gone rogue. Any modern-day president - Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama or Donald Trump - is now constrained only by a popular vote every four years and primarily media coverage in between elections. The only other remedy to such a rogue executive is impeachment, which we are seeing now, but it will be an uphill battle to win conviction in a Senate controlled by the president's party.

We got to this sorry place in which the Framers' system of checks and balances has broken down by wars of the 20th century. Wars tend to centralize power in the branch that executes them. Starting with the world wars and more importantly continuing through the long Cold War and the war on terror, the executive has amassed such powers that even the norms underlying the nation's laws have eroded.

Unfortunately, like the unsuspecting frog that eventually gets scalded by gradually heating bath water, the American people have grown accustomed over a century or more to the executive wielding his usurped powers, even disregarding congressional wishes and prerogatives. The Constitution's Framers would turn over in their graves, especially with a ruthless incumbent stretching the already excessive executive powers way beyond the unassuming office of president that they originally enshrined in the document.



Ivan Eland is the author of "War and the Rogue Presidency" and senior fellow with the Independent Institute


Be the first to know

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Most Popular

Welcome to the 21st century nuclear arms race. Once again, we're teetering on the brink of nuclear conflict instead of taking critical steps toward de-escalation and disarmament. If it feels like we're in the middle of a wacky James Bond movie plot, that's not far off. Any progress we were making toward nuclear safety is being rapidly, systematically and recklessly dismantled by the Trump ...

If a policymaker proposed banning cars and trucks or reducing the speed limit to 5 mph to reduce traffic fatalities, he or she would be laughed off the stage. Such a policy ignores the benefits of driving and disregards how people accept risk and tradeoffs in their lives. So why should we treat efforts to ban fracking any different? Hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking, is safe. ...

Hiram Rivera still has nightmares about being stopped and frisked by police. The 43-year-old executive director of the Community Resource Hub for Safety and Accountability was stopped for the first time as a young black teenager in Connecticut, and has lost count of how many times he's been stopped since. One stop stands out in his memory. In spring 2012, just a few months after he moved to ...

Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security are among the most popular federal programs out there. A 2019 Pew Research poll showed majorities across all parties and demographics opposing cuts to Social Security. A Public Policy Polling survey that same year found broad opposition to slashing Medicaid or Medicare. The programs are so popular that Donald Trump himself, back in his 2016 campaign, ...

Last fall, I spent a month in northern Brazil. Although I was there as a rabbi, officiating at services for the Jewish High Holy Days, headlines about the Catholic Church were what grabbed my attention. Pope Francis had called nearly 200 church leaders to Rome for the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region. Their efforts, after three weeks of discussion, were contained in a report that ...

The Alzheimer's disease tsunami is coming our way, and it is being propelled by the demographics of the baby boomers - the oldest of them turned 75 in 2019. Today, there are nearly 6 million Americans with the disease, according to the Alzheimer's Association, a number expected to nearly triple by 2050. The significant increase in the number of people diagnosed with Alzheimer's will be a ...

New reporting about last spring's devastating fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris - and, specifically, how the world-renowned structure is still at risk of collapse - offers yet another reminder of the fragility of humankind's greatest creations and the stark reality that centuries of culture and history can be wiped out in minutes. Several years ago, in spring 2016, I was at the Uffizi ...

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


News Alerts

Breaking News