As Americans hold our collective breath watching an increasingly deranged Chief Executive (did you see that Cabinet meeting?), political scientists ponder the short- and long-term consequences of this unprecedented Presidency. How much damage will he do, and how long will it last?
Elaine Kamarck of the Brookings Institution has a recent article speculating on what happens next: she describes the possibilities as 1)Trump learning and his presidency becoming more normal or at least adapting to what she delicately terms his “impulsiveness;” 2) the chaos continuing and power moving away from the presidency as a result; or 3) Trump being forced to leave office.
I suppose the good news is that any of these scenarios spells doom for Dick Cheney’s wet dream of a “unitary executive.”
If I were a gambling woman, I’d put my money on #2. The chaos will continue, and the federal government–at least the Executive Branch– will no longer be the center of domestic or international policy. Power abhors a vacuum.
As Kamarck writes,
The second model involves little learning and no adaptation. This is a model for continuing chaos, with the likely result that power will begin to drain from the White House towards other centers. For instance, power can move from the White House to the states and to the private sector. In the area of climate change, California Governor Jerry Brown has already stepped into a leadership role. It is likely that governors and corporate leaders may begin to take action regardless of what the White House thinks. Power can also move to Congress where possibilities for a limited tax bill and some infrastructure spending can move more or less without White House leadership. And internationally, power can move to the heads of Germany and France in Europe and also to China, as the United States pulls back from the world or offers leadership that is too unstable to count on. It’s unclear whether turning the presidency into a sideshow would be permanent or not. But continuing chaos from a Trump presidency could do it at least temporarily.
During the turbulent Sixties, “Power to the People” was a popular slogan, but the scenario painted in Kamarck’s second model is hardly benign. Despite Americans’ longstanding distrust of central authority, numerous aspects of our national life require a measure of uniformity if we are to remain the United States.
In normal times, we would expect Congress to step in to fill the power vacuum. That would certainly be the best-case scenario–if we had a functioning legislative branch. But we don’t. One result of the Republicans’ exceedingly thorough 2011 gerrymander was the election of what has appropriately been dubbed the “lunatic caucus,” reactionary ideologues and culture warriors uninterested in the nitty-gritty details of governance and unacquainted with the concepts of pluralism or the common good. They are “led”–to the limited extent they are tractable–by men who have elevated party over country and power over the rule of law.
Devolving power to the states can help to ameliorate some of the immediate damage being done to American institutions, but the only real solution I see is a “wave” election in 2018 that gives us a Democratic Congress capable of containing Trumpism.
The 64 Thousand Dollar Question is whether the Democrats can get their act together, recruit responsible and attractive candidates, and forgo their usual intra-party fratricide.
The whole world is watching….