President Trump’s attempted end-run to fund his “beautiful” wall has been widely, and properly, denounced as a naked power grab by both the left and even some on the right. Yet if Trump’s action is ham-handed and likely dangerous, it also sadly reinforces a long-standing trend that seems to be leading us, inexorably, toward an ever-more imperial presidency.
History is replete with republics that devolved into autocracies. The best-known case remains the shift of the Roman Republic into an imperial state led by a “first citizen” imperator with ever more unlimited powers. But many others, including Athens, the inventor of democracy, later also became dominated by tyrants.
This devolution of democracy stems from a failure of democracies to address serious problems that seem beyond their capability. This follows early 20th-century sociologist Robert Michels’ theory of “the iron law of oligarchy,” which suggests that ever-more complex problems lead societies to opt for more elite-driven solutions and suppress popular input.
Dictatorship for me, but not thee
Trump’s effort to circumvent Congress is frightening. But many of the same progressives now worried about presidential overreach did not feel so when Barack Obama occupied the White House. Like Trump, Obama frequently found his priorities blocked by a Congress often controlled by his political opponents. What differed were the targets of his obsessions, like climate change and racial redress, as opposed to securing the border.
With barely a peep from the progressive-dominated media, Obama ruled largely through his “pen and phone,” empowering federal agencies to impose rules and regulations that would never had gained the consent of Congress. The conservative Heritage Foundation estimates that as of 2015 the Obama administration had passed at least 184 “major rules” (regulations with at least a $100 million economic impact) and thousands of smaller rules. During its first six years, it promulgated more than twice as many major rules as the first six years of the predecessor Bush administration.
Like Trump, Obama and his advisors often denigrated Congress and felt themselves above them. Many of his policy accomplishments — the Iran nuclear agreement, the Paris climate accords, tough energy regulation and expansion of civil rights legislation — took place without congressional approval. Ironically, this then invited Trump, once in power, to reassert dictatorial form by simply revoking these executive orders.
Setting the stage for Imperium
When Julius Caesar seized absolute power, he could claim that the Roman Senate, like Congress today, was corrupt, self-interested and incapable of ruling an increasingly large, diverse and unruly empire. Ultimately Caesar’s successors succeeded in turning the Senate and other Republican institutions into vestigial organs.
Today the United States also faces issues — whether control of the border, combating terrorism or addressing climate concerns — that Congress seems incapable of addressing. With abysmal approval ratings for a generation, Congress barely resembles the place once inhabited by master legislators such as Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, Sam Rayburn, Lyndon Johnson, Everett Dirksen, Wayne Morse or Mike Mansfield.
More troubling still, the United States social structure also increasingly resembles that of late Republican Rome. As in those times, our middle orders have been weakened for at least a generation. In Rome the ultra-rich, such as Marcus Crassus or Caesar himself, sought to undermine democracy with lucre. This presaged the role now played by billionaires such as Sheldon Adelson and the Kochs on the gilded right, and Tom Steyer, Michael Bloomberg, Jeff Bezos and George Soros on the gentry left.
Is there a way out?
America increasingly resembles not the republic of small proprietors praised by James Madison, but the centralized Roman Empire in the 2nd and 3rd centuries ACE, with an economy dominated by large landowners operating a slave economy. Rather than engage the masses in fruitful enterprise, the rulers imply sought to appease the masses with bread and circuses, the early equivalents of Big Macs and video games.
Like Roman citizens, Americans seem to be losing patience with republican institutions that seem incapable of addressing key environmental and human rights issues through reasoned compromise. Instead we have brazen attempts by high-ranking federal officials to overturn the 2016 election, the left’s proposals for an authoritarian Green New Deal, the promise of almost total federal control of society or a national security policy dictated through presidential tweet. All these efforts threaten the basic constitutional process.
Democracy, to survive, should provide, as Aldous Huxley noted, “devices for reconciling social order with individual freedom and initiative.” Unable to settle things among ourselves, we increasingly face the prospect of alternating presidential dictatorships, often abetted by Supreme Court justices too unwilling to challenge executive power. This represents a fundamental challenge to the future of democracy at a time when it is already fading in much of the rest of the world. In America, the greatest democracy in history, our only hope lies in a reinvigorated citizenry, and an empowered legislative branch, capable of opposing the autocracy that our presidents, and their disparate supporters on both sides of the political divide, seem all too anxious to embrace.
This article first appeared on The Orange County Register.
Joel Kotkin is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University, director of the Chapman Center for Demographics and Policy and executive director of the Center for Opportunity Urbanism in Houston, Texas. He is author of eight books and co-editor of the recently released Infinite Suburbia. He also serves as executive director of the widely read website www.newgeography.com and is a regular contributor to Forbes.com, Real Clear Politics, the Daily Beast, City Journal and Southern California News Group.