The months since Donald Trump was elected president have been boom times for experts on authoritarianism. Masha Gessen wrote a widely circulated essay in the New York Review of Books titled, “Autocracy: Rules for Survival.” Tim Snyder wrote a small book titled “On Tyranny” about what ordinary citizens need to do to guard against a proto-fascist Trump as president. Numerous scholars have been on the watch for any sign that Trump intends to follow through on his rhetoric and dismantle the liberal international order.
The morning after Trump was elected, however, I also wrote the following:
What is noteworthy about the American system of government is not what it can do but what it cannot do. The president is not a tyrant. The separation of powers puts important legal constraints on the executive branch. Federalism puts important legal constraints on what the federal government can impose on the states. The Bill of Rights puts important legal constraints on what any level of government can do to the American people.
Layered on top of those legal constraints is a whole set of bureaucratic norms and procedures that can make it difficult for a president to manage even the executive branch. There are civil service protections for bureaucrats. There are standard operating procedures that officials are loath to contravene. …
When Trump is sworn into office, he will face all of these legal and bureaucratic constraints and more.
Nearly two months in, however, it’s worth checking in to see whether this has held up. Two op-eds suggest that it has. I’m not sure if I am as confident as these authors, however.
In the National Interest, the Heritage Foundation’s James Jay Carafano argues that once you strip away Trump’s words and focus on administration actions, he has been a very conventional foreign policy president: “Presidential rhetoric aside, the early signs suggest Trump is pursuing a defense and foreign policy that looks tediously mainstream.”
Carafano is correct to point out Trump’s largely mainstream approach to the Pacific Rim. And if one uses my proposed Russia test as a measure of Trump’s ability to disrupt the foreign policy machine, there has been little disruption.
That said, this is not the most persuasive essay. Take this paragraph:
Trump also looks to be looking for balance in leadership. His secretaries of defense and state have both made high-profile visits around the world reassuring allies that the U.S. will maintain its commitments to friends and allies. Both have the president’s respect and confidence. Further, the appointment of H.R. McMaster as national security adviser has drawn bipartisan — almost universal — praise.
As I noted Tuesday, if Trump’s foreign policy team really had his respect and confidence, they’d be granted some autonomy when it comes to staffing their respective departments. And whether one looks at the Defense Department, the State Department or the National Security Council, it seems as though the White House is doing its darnedest to stymie the people drawing bipartisan praise.
Folks like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis can offer all the reassuring words they want to key allies. But we are now in a world where the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is trying to argue that the secretary of state is influential because “he talks all the time to Jared.” Perception matters, and if the perception is that people like Tillerson are being marginalized in favor of insecure hacks, that’s a problem for American foreign policy.
Carafano might be proven correct. But less than two months in, we just don’t know. And in foreign policy, Trump has so much autonomy that his ability to muck things up should not be underestimated.
The more powerful op-ed comes from Jack Goldsmith, who argues in the New York Times that Trump is being held accountable. The combination of congressional inquiries, FBI investigations, leaks and the Fourth Estate have made sure that Trump’s ties to Russia, for example, will be properly assessed:
It’s true that the process of accountability is halting and frustratingly slow. But this is as it should be. The stakes could not be higher for our democracy. Ascertaining the truth is vital, and respect for the innocent is as important as identification of wrongdoing. It is thus crucial that the complex and elusive facts be sorted out in a fair and procedurally rigorous manner, and that the law be applied with deliberation and good judgment.
Justice seems elusive here because it is so plodding. But plodding justice is our best chance for a legitimate resolution to this mess.
One can generalize Goldsmith’s arguments and ask if these forces are preventing Trump from doing things that harm the national interest and erode the rule of law.
The answer is mixed. One can argue that since his inauguration, a critical free press, independent judiciary, questioning Congress, patriotic civil service and robust social movements have placed significant constraints on Trump’s actions. The ways in which the White House had to scale back its still-pretty-awful immigration ban would be the best example of this.
On the other hand, in thinking about Trump’s myriad violations of political norms, the constraints have not been all that binding. The president still tweets really stupid things, and still runs afoul of the emoluments clause in the Constitution. Heck, his son-in-law/principal foreign policy adviser’s family can receive a massively favorable deal from foreign investors without much in the way of political blowback.
Two months in, the worst has not happened under Trump. Is the system really working to check the president’s worst impulses? I fear not.