Fearing Donald Trump: The liberal dilemma
WASHINGTON, March 1, 2016 — Donald Trump’s Super Tuesday performance underscores a growing, uneasy consensus among America’s pundits: Trump is the likely Republican presidential nominee.
When Trump announced his candidacy, the consensus was that he didn’t have a chance of winning the nomination. Trump’s outrageous gaffes would kill his campaign; his support was loud but limited; the GOP establishment would slap him down. The American people were too smart and too sensible to fall for Trump.
How smart and sensible the American people are is an open question, but they are smart enough not to waste time listening to political pundits or take their pronouncements to heart. Pundits only predict the future well when it’s become the past.
Texas Republican Ted Cruz has won Texas, as he had to. And while the Red River defines a powerful football rivalry, Texas and Oklahoma march to the same political beat. So Cruz remains in the race. But Trump prevails almost everywhere else tonight.
Trump excites more horror among American liberals than anyone since Ronald Reagan. Reagan, as historian Steven Hayward wrote for the American Enterprise Institute, was Hitler well before Trump was Hitler:
Liberals hated Reagan in the 1980s. Pure and simple. They used language that would make the most fervid anti-Obama rhetoric of the Tea Party seem like, well, a tea party. Democratic Rep. William Clay of Missouri charged that Reagan was “trying to replace the Bill of Rights with fascist precepts lifted verbatim from Mein Kampf.” The Los Angeles Times cartoonist Paul Conrad drew a panel depicting Reagan plotting a fascist putsch in a darkened Munich beer hall. Harry Stein (later a conservative convert) wrote in Esquire that the voters who supported Reagan were like the “good Germans” in “Hitler’s Germany.”
There was ample academic support for this theme. John Roth, a Holocaust scholar at Claremont College, wrote:
“I could not help remembering how 40 years ago economic turmoil had conspired with Nazi nationalism and militarism—all intensified by Germany’s defeat in World War I —to send the world reeling into catastrophe. … It is not entirely mistaken to contemplate our postelection state with fear and trembling.”
Now Trump is Hitler. Harvard political theorist Danielle Allen writes for the Washington Post, “Like any number of us raised in the late 20th century, I have spent my life perplexed about exactly how Hitler could have come to power in Germany. Watching Donald Trump’s rise, I now understand.”
Are the institutions of American democracy and government so debased that a President Trump could crush liberty beneath his heel and stage a fascist putsch? That seems to be the fear of liberals across America.
These liberals have come to the same grim conclusion about the weakness of American institutions that some on the far right have. The internet is rife with dark mutterings about President Obama’s plans to remain in office, to cancel elections and grant himself emergency powers. Most people dismiss these mutterings as the deranged product of racist minds. But they are the exact concerns of liberals who fear a Trump putsch.
Liberals who laugh off far-right lunacy yet fear Trump should ask themselves, do they laugh off far-right fears only because they don’t think that Obama is temperamentally inclined to seize power? Do they think that he can, but won’t? If they think that he can, they should be terrified of Trump. If they think he can’t, then Trump isn’t as terrifying.
If Trump can seize total power, so can any president. If all that stands between America and dictatorship is the integrity and good will of the president, then America is already lost. We are Rome, fearing bad emperors and hoping for good ones.
The power of the presidency has expanded over a period of decades. That isn’t the fault of Obama or of any other one person, but Obama has helped the process along in his own way and has done little to stop it. If the presidency is dangerously powerful, it isn’t because Obama has been reluctant to exercise power.
In politics, process is more important than results. That is to say, means are more important than ends. This is because ends—policy results—come and go. Means—the process—are established as precedent. Once the nuclear option is played in the Senate, it remains as a tool for the other party when it takes power. Once a president gets away with selectively enforcing the law, that remains a tool available to his successors. When one party decides that ideology can be the basis for rejecting Supreme Court nominees regardless of qualifications, it remains the basis when the Senate changes hands.
Process is more important than results because it sets precedents and reshapes the flow of power. If you approve of a strong executive when you like the executive and hate the legislature, and approve of the executive circumventing the legislature, then you’re to blame when an executive you don’t like takes office and uses all the power that previous executives have accumulated in the job.
If you want the protection of laws and transparency, you have to embrace them even when they go against you. If you want a legislature that can stand up to Trump, you have to applaud a legislature that can thwart Obama. If it will be easy for President Trump to upend the Constitution and become a dictator, then we’ve already screwed up. It should be hard.
If Trump is a threat to American democracy, that democracy is already a sham. The republic exists in name, but it is already an empire. That fear is almost certainly exaggerated, though. If Obama has strengthened the presidency and weakened institutional safeguards against outright usurpation, our system still retains a great deal of vitality.
Do I know that for certain? No, of course not. I could be wrong. But the more the punditocracy wrings its hands in fear of Trump, the more certain I am of a bet against them. America isn’t Weimar. Congress is not the Reichstag. The U.S. military and judicial system aren’t the discredited and corrupted institutions that Hitler pressed into his service. Pundits—especially the liberal ones who praise Obama for rescuing America—are now betting that America is on the verge of a Trump-triggered collapse.
If you’re a liberal, relax. If Obama has done his job and served his oath of office well, you have nothing to fear from Trump.