On Tuesday, working-class whites defied the oracles of Conventional Wisdom. FiveThirtyEight got it wrong. So did The New York Times. Against all odds and eidolons, Donald J. Trump will be the next president of the United States.
This is, in my considered judgment, bad. Trump’s victory has already induced market tremors (well, initially) and courted eerie diplomatic overtures. But markets bounce back eventually, and just because World War III is possible doesn’t mean it’s very likely. The immediate fallout of Trump’s election is cause for concern, not panic.
But, although Trump-as-financial-portent shouldn’t scare you, Trump as commander-in chief should. Why? Because America’s cultural and institutional nexus of checks and balances — designed by the Founding Fathers to rein in threats like Trump — has been in a state of decline for the past 40 years.
The historian Chris DeMuth traces the “Big Bang of executive government” to the 1970s, when it became standard practice for executive agencies to issue the kinds of sweeping policy directives traditionally reserved for Congress. Far from resisting this development, Congress — overwhelmed by demands for new environmental and social regulations — began to delegate more and more power to the executive. It also grew increasingly tolerant of executive orders, including those which sort-of-kind-of stood in direct contravention of federal law.
The result, according to Marc Fisher, is that “President Trump could fulfill many of his promises legally — and virtually unchecked by a Congress that has proven incapable of mustering much pushback for decades.” Our constitutional architecture purposefully fragments political power so that a win for a demagogue does not mean a win for tyranny. That structure historically left a lot of room for obstructionism, but very little for Caesarism. Now, however, those hoping to contain Trump are in for a nasty surprise: The administrative state has eroded the very institutions designed to combat administrative overreach.
What many histrionic liberals fail to realize is that their darkest predictions for the next four years naturally follow from the progressive Weltanschauung. In the early 20th century, progressive reformers began to argue that strong limitations on executive power made it impossible to extinguish social ills on the national scale. They maintained — as many do today — that concentrated economic power constituted a greater threat to the public good than concentrated political power, and sought to strengthen the executive branch accordingly. Unfortunately, treating constitutional restraints as bugs in an otherwise rational system makes it rather difficult to resist the siren song of centralization. When our leaders finally succumb to its bars, men like Donald Trump have a much easier time exploiting the levers of executive power to do things we don’t like.
Not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with bureaucratic consolidation. Technocracy has its place, and an America without any regulatory agencies or executive prerogatives would be ill-equipped to deal with the vicissitudes of modern life. Here, as in all things, trade-offs must be made.
But progressives, buoyed by a string of cultural and electoral victories, have tricked themselves into believing that a politics of rationality will always coincide with rational politicians. That assumption looked like a safe bet so long as Democrats were winning and minorities were voting. On Tuesday night, it was proven wrong. Democracy does not guarantee progress or justice; it only guarantees that the most popular guy wins.
And if President Trump follows in the footsteps of Candidate Trump, it behooves progressives to reconsider the role of executive power in our politics.
The founders understood that no nation is immune to demagoguery. They also understood that a strongman’s ability to do harm hinges on his ability to do anything at all — hence the proliferation of mechanisms to occlude rule by executive fiat. For the past eight years, the left has disparaged those mechanisms as obstacles to social equality. In some sense, they’re right. Federalism’s tendency to slow progress is real and lamentable.
Sometimes, though, less progress is the price we pay for averting regress. Trump’s coronation should motivate progressives to abandon their contempt for the principles and institutions capable of restraining executive overreach. It should also inspire a healthy sense of gratitude in all of us for the constitutional mechanisms we have. If 2016 teaches us anything, it is that the “arc of history” is no substitute for the separation of powers.
Aaron Sibarium is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. Contact him at email@example.com .