Monday, February 27, 2017

Our Most Authoritarian President

Who was/is the more authoritarian president, Barack Obama or Donald Trump? It sounds, perhaps, like an easy question, but you may be surprised. The answer depends, of course, upon how you define an authoritarian, but if you define it as a leader who seeks to arrogate for himself more power than the constitution allows him then, clearly, Barack Obama was more authoritarian than Donald Trump, at least according to David French at NRO.

As French notes,
[A] president is “authoritarian” not when he’s angry or impulsive or incompetent or tweets too much. He’s authoritarian when he seeks to expand his own power beyond constitutional limits. In this regard, the Obama administration — though far more polite and restrained in most of its public comments — was truly one of our more authoritarian.
Indeed, whereas Obama used executive power to circumvent the legislature and increase the power of the federal government in our lives, Trump has used it, so far, to limit federal power and get the government out of our lives. Herein, perhaps, lies the cause of so much of the seemingly irrational hatred for Trump. Those who desire an overweening, centralized regulatory state which intrudes itself dictatorially into every nook and cranny of our lives may well fear that Trump will be successful in unravelling much of the "progress" they've made in realizing their dream over the last fifty years, for the fact is that so far from governing like an authoritarian statist Trump has, at least until now, governed like a small-government libertarian.

French gives a number of examples of the differences between Mr. Obama and Mr. Trump in this regard:
Lost in most of the coverage of President Trump’s decision to rescind the Obama administration’s transgender mandates is a fundamental legal reality — the Trump administration just relinquished federal authority over gender-identity policy in the nation’s federally funded schools and colleges. In other words, Trump was less authoritarian than Obama.

And that’s not the only case. Consider the following examples where his administration, through policy or personnel, appears to be signaling that the executive branch intends to become less intrusive in American life and more accountable to internal and external critique.

Trump nominated Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, a man known not just for his intellect and integrity but also for his powerful legal argument against executive-branch overreach. Based on his previous legal writings, if Gorsuch had his way, the federal bureaucracy could well face the most dramatic check on its authority since the early days of the New Deal.

By overturning judicial precedents that currently require judicial deference to agency legal interpretations, [a Gorsuch] Court could put a stop to the current practice of presidents and bureaucrats steadily (and vastly) expanding their powers by constantly broadening their interpretations of existing legal statutes. For example, the EPA has dramatically expanded its control over the American economy even without Congress passing significant new environmental legislation. Instead, the EPA keeps revising its interpretation of decades-old statutes like the Clean Air Act, using those new interpretations to enact a host of comprehensive new regulations. If Gorsuch’s argument wins the day, the legislative branch would be forced to step up at the expense of the executive, no matter how “authoritarian” a president tried to be.

When the Ninth Circuit blocked Trump’s immigration executive order (which was certainly an aggressive assertion of presidential power), he responded differently from the Obama administration when it faced similar judicial setbacks. Rather than race to the Supreme Court in the attempt to expand presidential authority, it backed up (yes, amid considerable presidential bluster) and told the Ninth Circuit that it intends to rewrite and rework the order to address the most serious judicial concerns and roll back its scope.

Authoritarianism is defined by how a president exercises power, not by the rightness of his goals. Indeed, if you peel back the layer of leftist critiques of Trump’s early actions and early hires, they contain a surprising amount of alarmism over the rollback of governmental power. Education activists are terrified that Betsy DeVos will take children out of government schools or roll back government mandates regarding campus sexual-assault tribunals.

Environmentalists are terrified that Scott Pruitt will make the EPA less activist. Civil-rights lawyers are alarmed at the notion that Jeff Sessions will inject the federal government into fewer state and local disputes over everything from school bathrooms to police traffic stops.
In almost everything he's done he's proven to be less authoritarian, less of a statist, than his predecessor. That doesn't make him right, of course, but it makes the charge of authoritarianism, especially when it comes from critics who supported Mr. Obama, seem pretty silly, and it makes the cry of "fascist!" even sillier.

To be fair, Trump did say things in the campaign that warranted concern, but nothing that he has actually done in the first month of his administration justifies the allegation that he's an authoritarian or fascist. As Washington Free Beacon executive editor Sonny Bunch tweeted with a heavy dollop of sarcasm, Donald Trump is such a terrifying fascist dictator that literally no one fears speaking out against him on literally any platform.

French offers more examples to illustrate how Trump is less authoritarian than Obama at the link. He makes a pretty interesting case.