Michelle Fang

In a riveting Tuesday conversation on America’s bizarre political dynamic, New York Times Magazine staff writers Emily Bazelon ’93 LAW ’00 and Ross Douthat discussed President Donald Trump’s imperialistic exterior and the precedents set by his reign.

The two joined for a political discussion on whether America is breaking apart. Bazelon is the Truman Capote Fellow for Creative Writing and Law at the Law School and a co-host of Slate’s podcast the Political Gabfest. Douthat is a conservative op-ed columnist for the New York Times and a former senior editor of the Atlantic.

“It’s a bad thing that a president declares an emergency when there is no emergency,” Bazelon said regarding Trump’s recent national emergency declaration to obtain border wall funding.

During the informal chat, Bazelon and Douthat took turns asking each other questions. Douthat opened by describing the paradox of the Trump presidency. Trump’s Twitter persona paints him as an imperial leader like Hugo Chávez; however, that presidency exists only in “the realm of Trump’s imagination,” he said. Douthat added that Trump was the “weakest chief executive” since former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, and Trump is “performatively” an “imperialist” president.

Bazelon discussed the broken promises from Trump’s Twitter feed, as well as her frustration at how much attention it receives. Bazelon added that executive agencies are actually quite effective in getting some parts of Trump’s agenda passed, but these actions are not making headlines. She also raised the question of “what precedents are being set” as the role of the presidency expands and diminishes Congress’ power.

Douthat asked Bazelon how Congress could reassert itself. But Bazelon conceded that less-than-competitive elections and gerrymandering complicate Congress’ ability to serve the people. She added that due to unequal population distribution, the makeup of the Senate is not composed as the U.S. founders had planned. These problems require constitutional amendments; however, it’s difficult to change the Constitution if we can’t get people to agree, Bazelon said.

She noted that voting should not be a partisan issue, and voting turnout and barriers should be issues of paramount importance. Yet, in the current political climate with such divided media outlets, this is hard to achieve, she added.

“CNN is sometimes the worst offender,” Douthat said, with regards to the dangers of cable news and social media. “They helped to do the most to build Trump in the primary campaign” — free airing rallies and the like.

The last 15 minutes were open to the floor for questions. People asked about filibustering, the effects of our current polarization and how to reconcile our divided media sources.

Ashley Fan ’22 said she heard about this event through the Poynter Fellowship and enjoys keeping up with their events.

Another attendee, Michael Sisti ’20 said he expected political analysis when he attended the event, but was met with different angles that addressed trends in partisan politics.

“Trump portrayed himself as an imperial authoritarian with his rhetoric, but his actions reflect a weak executive,” Sisti said.

Leland Stange ’19, a staff columnist for the News, said he liked how Ross delineated the distinction between Trump’s imagination, his tweets and “the actual effects of his presidency and realistically what is happening.”

Bazelon is working on a book about prosecutors and criminal justice reform.

Michelle Fang | michelle.fang@yale.edu