Donald Trump is a laughably unqualified, ignorant, bigoted, morally repulsive person, who, by failing to understand the separation of powers, demonstrating a love of authoritarianism and authoritarians, assaulting the freedom of the press, judicial independence and the equal protection clause, inciting violence, and undermining faith in non-partisan government agencies, poses an extraordinary threat to the American republic. However, that could be exactly what America needs.
By electing Donald Trump to the presidency, we, as a nation, risk permanently damaging the dignity and solemnity of the office. We risk ending, perhaps forever, America’s position as a “city upon a hill,” a moral model to be emulated. We risk destroying our great inheritance, preserved and cherished through the generations. We risk declining forever from an exceptional nation into an ordinary one. But even with the tremendous and terrifying risks posed by a Donald Trump presidency, we have the opportunity to show the world a rejuvenated American exceptionalism, a new greatness based outside of the Oval Office.
The Foundation of American Greatness:
Ancient Athens, governed by direct democracy, faced constant danger from would-be tyrants. To counter this threat, the Athenians instituted ostracism. By a vote in the assembly, they could exile for ten years any individual they deemed a threat to democracy. Without a clear separation of powers, checks and balances, civil society, or enshrined civil liberties, Athens instituted an extreme measure to prevent its political order from degenerating into tyranny. Athenians recognized that if they failed to take preventative action before a dangerous individual could assume power, their cherished democracy could collapse.
Centuries later, the Roman Empire relied exclusively on the emperor to maintain virtue and prevent decline. As Pliny the Younger said in a speech praising the great emperor Trajan, “the principles of [the emperor’s] conduct will have the same effective power as a [moral] censorship. Indeed, an emperor’s life is a censorship.” Thus, through the positive moral example of the emperor, Rome could stave off moral and political degeneration. Unfortunately, Rome would soon discover the peril of reliance on a single individual, as great emperors like Trajan do not live forever. When bad, immoral emperors came to power, Rome, accordingly, declined.
Democratic Athens and imperial Rome both faced an existential danger from a single dangerous individual if he were to evade ostracism and establish tyranny in Athens or become emperor in Rome. Without systemic checks or limits on such a man’s power, their societies would fall irreversibly into vice and weakness before ultimately collapsing.
The American Correction:
The American Founders crafted the Constitution with the same threat of irreversible decline in mind. Rather than employ extraordinary measures, like ostracism, to prevent dangerous men from ever coming to power, the Founders instituted structures limiting the extent to which a single man could damage the republic. In Federalist 51, James Madison wrote, “If men were angels, no government would be unnecessary.” Madison supported the newly-written constitution because it operated under this assumption. He knew that a republic that relied on the constant vigilance necessary to ostracize all potential tyrants or the eternal life of Trajan would be in constant danger. He knew that tyrannical men would come to power. And thus he knew that checks, in the form of “subordinate distributions of power, where the constant aim is to divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other,” were vital. Even under the leadership of tyrannical men, Madison hoped the republic could constantly be rejuvenated. He hoped that divided government and federalism would prevent decline into tyranny. Recognizing that a country where only virtuous men are elected to high office was unrealistic, the Founders forged a government where institutions could prevent a single destructive individual from permanently destroying the republic.
The American republic has always been exceptional, but not because we always elect the best leaders or because our president always epitomizes virtue. America is exceptional because no one has the power to single-handedly throw the nation into irreversible decline. America is exceptional because our constitution establishes three branches of government to check one another’s ambitions; we have a system of state and local government that prevents federal government tyranny; sacrosanct individual rights are guaranteed by an independent judiciary; the media is strong, independent, influential, vibrant, decentralized and equipped to conduct investigative journalism; we have the greatest institutions of higher education in the world, which provide an independent policy voice, produce new technology, and educate enlightened individuals who can stand up to ignorance; a diverse array of brilliant think tanks and policy analysts collaborate to make policy; watchdogs and rights groups are determined to preserve civil rights; and powerful corporations and unions are willing to resist any government action that threatens their interests. In short, America has never been exceptional solely because of who holds the office of the president. Our nation has been exceptional because we possess uniquely strong non-presidential sources of greatness.
In recent years, however, many of these sources of American exceptionalism have stagnated or declined.
Disturbing Recent Trends:
A Congress in Decline:
Unfortunately, in recent years, the United States has drifted away from Madison’s vision and become more like Athens or Rome, where one dangerous man has the power to successfully cause a nation’s decline. Although Madison believed that “in republican government, the legislative authority necessarily predominates,” today the president is clearly the most powerful force in our republic, capable of single-handedly transforming the nation. The United States was neither founded to be nor should be a nation in which a single individual can cause dramatic and irreversible damage.
Whether as a result of Obama’s overreach or congressional gridlock, the executive branch has rapidly gained power in recent years. Too frequently, the executive will legislate through executive order or federal agency-mandated regulation. Recently, congressional party leadership has simply obstructed the executive and prevented members of Congress from acting independently. Rank-and-file congressmen have preferred grandstanding to legislation, treating Congress like a parliamentary arena rather than the first branch of the US government. In short, Congress has abdicated. Furthermore, Congress has let its staff levels stagnate and has weakened the independent power of committees. Both trends promote congressional impotence. Congressmen have been guilty of seeking support through publicity stunts and showmanship, rather than productive governance. The executive branch has stepped in to fill the void left by a Congress in decline. This executive branch expansion is dangerous to republican principles, as the federal bureaucracy consists of hundreds of thousands of unelected and unaccountable officials under the control of a single individual. With such broad scope—scope never intended by the Founders—the executive can pose a threat to the republic itself. Executive power has expanded in ways that set dangerous precedents, increasing the risk of a Trump usurpation.
Given that Congress has been the branch that has secured civil liberties best throughout this nation’s history, Congress’s decline in importance is alarming. This reduction of the power of the people’s branch, the one that is supposed to preserve our republic and prevent descent into tyranny, increases the chance that an authoritarian-inclined president could establish a tyranny. Congress has declined in productivity, failed to pass obvious necessities (budgets, immigration reform, tax bills, laws declaring war or preventing it, etc.), and has seen its approval ratings plummet in response. As Congress has waned, the country moves further towards tyranny.
Federalism in Decline:
As politics have become nationalized, state and local governments have also declined in authority and relevance. State governments have become far less influential as voters increasingly vote by party and care less about who their governor is than who the president is. Furthermore, as voters focus on national elections, voter turnout for state and local elections has plummeted. For example, according to a recent study, mayoral elections in New York City, Philadelphia and Los Angeles had turnout rates in the early 1950s of 93 percent, 73 percent, and 70 percent respectively. The same cities had turnout rates of 26 percent, 20 percent and 23 percent in recent elections. Even in famously hyper-political Chicago, as recently as 1983, the mayoral vote turnout was 82 percent, but decreased to around 40 percent in the most recent election.
State, city and local governments not only deal with essential issues such as education, regulation, and police and fire departments, they also represent a vital bulwark against a centralized federal government slipping ever closer to tyranny. These governments can implement innovative new policies. They can provide useful examples and test cases for national debates over policy, and they can thus compete with one another to find the best solutions that can then be implemented across the nation.
These local governments allow for regional cultural differences to be expressed in policy. California can pursue environmentalism, while West Virginia may not. Texas can have different gun laws than New York City. Ideally, state, local, and city governments can stand up to the federal government. The Constitution promoted federalism because the Founders were acutely aware of regional differences in desires and policy inclinations. The decline in federalism also means that all individuals are increasingly forced to adhere to national policies, no matter how unsuitable for their specific region, rather than policies tailored specifically for their localities. If the federal government passes laws loathed by certain states or localities, the disaffected states and localities can respond with laws that mitigate the federal law’s effects on its citizens. They have the capacity to limit federal power. But when voters only care about national and presidential elections, and allow state and local governments to languish, this necessary bulwark erodes.
The Media in Decline:
With the changing media landscape, traditional, reliable, and informative journalism has declined. Network news used to be dominant and essential to most Americans’ daily routines. They were able to choose stories based on their reliability and interest to the general public and maintained moderate, impartial and accurate reporting. Today, however, Americans on average spend twice as much time watching cable news as either network news or local news. Traditional print media is showing similar declines. Recently, stalwarts The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, facing massive print advertising declines, have had to cut jobs and restructure. The decline in traditional news media will open up a void in reliable, nonpartisan reporting that will only make it more difficult for voters to hold government accountable.
While the big-name national print media face headwinds, traditional local print media is getting destroyed. In the United States in 2005, 100 daily newspapers each had over 100,000 daily print subscribers, 49 had over 200,000, and 9 had over 500,000; in 2015, these numbers had fallen to 22 papers with over 100,000 daily print subscribers, 9 with over 200,000 and 2 with over 500,000. Local newspaper declines compound the worrying trends that show declining interest in local government. As local media coverage shrinks, fewer investigative journalists will be able to uncover local corruption or inform voters on what local governments are doing. Traditional media’s decline has many other negative side effects, including creating echo chambers in which people only listen to those who agree with them. The concept of objective media has so dramatically lost support that 51 percent of conservative Republicans believe it is “OK” to hear only one side.
Even as traditional media declines, new media sources, less reliable, less accountable, and not tied to facts, have replaced them. Although all Americans have seen their media transformed, among the younger generation, new media sources, according to Pew Research data, are taking over most rapidly: 50 percent of millennials get news from the internet, while only 27 percent get their news from TV, 14 percent from radio and 5 percent from print media. 44 percent of all adults report getting news from Facebook. Although social media is widely-understood to be unreliable (4 percent of adults have “a lot” of trust in social media news), it is an increasingly dominant source of news. With so many getting news from the internet and social media, sources without gatekeepers, fake news has grown increasingly prevalent and problematic. The twenty highest-performing fake news stories of the 2016 election received more attention online than the twenty highest-performing legitimate news stories in the final months of the campaign.
The media checks government power by informing voters, exposing corruption, and criticizing the government where necessary. Furthermore, the media, by promoting differing opinions through editorials and op-eds, can advance diverse policy proposals. A diversity of policy proposals allows policymakers to see flaws in existing statutes and reform them, as well as flaws in pending legislation, which encourages policymakers to make beneficial improvements. A declining media that voters trust less means less opportunity for coherently and reliably questioning, investigating and critiquing the actions of a would-be tyrant.
As these checks to presidential sources of power decline, executive power is strengthened, leading America increasingly down the road to tyranny. Indeed, perhaps the greatest risk of a Trump presidency is a furtherance of this transfer of power. If Trump strives for tyranny, will there be obstacles?
Hopefully, there will be. In fact, there are a number of reasons why a Trump presidency, though portending many dangers, could result in the reversal of each of these damaging trends. The means by which such a rejuvenation could occur will be explored in Part II of this article.
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