At his rally, Trump belittled House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as “not operating with a full deck.” He derided House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff as “you little pencil neck.” The crowd roared, demonstrating how heavily Trump’s petty abusiveness figures as a factor in his appeal.
But what Trump really displayed here is that his deranged attacks on the opposition aren’t mere insults. Taken along with Trump’s mockery of congressional demands for input into decisions of war, they demonstrate a profound contempt for the very notion that his most consequential decisions should be subject to oversight and accountability at all.
Delegitimizing the opposition
Respect for the legitimacy of the political opposition is a basic hallmark of accountability in government. You see, the voters who cheered Trump in Ohio aren’t the only voters who matter. Opposition lawmakers — in this case, House Democrats — also represent millions and millions of Americans.
An acknowledgment of the legitimacy of the opposition’s representatives would send the message not just that Trump recognizes some sort of obligation to defer to the role of other branches in acting as a check on his power, but also that in some sense he is accountable to those voters, too, and not only to his own.
Mockery of the opposition is, of course, a constant in politics. But this is different. Trump regularly crosses over into a form of harsh belittling and abuse that is designed to delegitimize the opposition, that is, to tell his voters that the opposition has no legitimate institutional role in our politics at all.
This is sometimes accomplished via dehumanizing residents of parts of the country that don’t support him, such as when Trump exaggeratedly derides the districts of black lawmakers as “rodent-infested.”
Other times it appears deliberately scripted into Trump’s speeches. When Trump claimed that the Democratic impeachment shows hatred for “the American voter,” a phrase Trump probably wouldn’t improvise, he was flatly declaring that only his voters constitute the American electorate.
Indeed, Trump put this into practice by functionally treating the impeachment as illegitimate — refusing any and all lawful subpoenas for witnesses and evidence.
Now Trump is claiming that the House and the Republican-controlled Senate have zero legitimate claim to oversight when it comes to Trump’s warmaking.
“You should get permission from Congress,” Trump scoffed at his rally during a rant about Soleimani, mimicking congressional lawmakers’ demands. “You should tell us what you want to do.”
In saying this, Trump flatly ridiculed the very notion that he should have notified or sought approval from Congress before ordering the assassination of a senior military leader in a sovereign country, and treated the idea that he should seek authorization for future hostilities as beneath contempt. The crowd loudly approved.
The War Powers debate
All this has particular salience amid the war powers debate. The House has passed a bill that would compel Trump to end any military hostilities 30 days after enactment if Congress hasn’t authorized it. The Senate will vote on Sen. Tim Kaine’s (D-Va.) companion version.
This measure relies on the War Powers Resolution of 1973, which requires the president to seek congressional authorization for hostilities, and also empowers Congress to affirmatively vote by simple majority to constrain a particular unauthorized ongoing military action.
The Constitution designated the president as commander in chief while vesting Congress with the power to declare war, because doing so would avoid vesting absolute warmaking power in the executive. This was deemed necessary, as Alexander Hamilton put it, to ensure that the president’s authority remained “much inferior” to that of a king.
The 1973 law was meant to reinvigorate this role for Congress. As congressional scholar Lou Fisher explains, this was premised on the idea that the clash between multiple institutions of government produces sounder war policy, in a manner more accountable to the people, since their representatives would also debate and vote on it. This is basically what’s at stake in the debate over constraining Trump.
The 1973 law has proven to be a flimsy constraint, and it has been regularly abused by presidents in both parties, including Barack Obama, helped along by Congress’ regular abdication of its authority.
It’s not clear how constraining a new act of Congress might end up being — other, tougher bills are also being considered — but it could very well help, and would constitute a reassertion of congressional authority.
Trump has demanded that all Republicans oppose this measure. All but three in the House followed his decree. It remains to be seen whether four Senate Republicans will defy it, which could allow it to pass, though Trump would likely veto it.
It’s bad enough that all this is coming at a time when Trump’s rationales for his assassination order have collapsed. Even Republicans such as Sen. Mike Lee (Utah) are claiming that the intelligence behind it was a joke, and that behind closed doors, officials won’t acknowledge any hypothetical exercise of warmaking power that would make them feel obliged to seek congressional authorization.
Now Trump is openly mocking the very idea that Congress should have any constraining role at all over his unchecked warmaking authority. If all this isn’t enough to induce Republicans to rein in that authority, what would be?