Curbing the powers of the president

Curbing the powers of the president

It has been increasingly clear since US President Donald Trump took power that his term will test the durability and integrity of US institutions. Some had expected that the ranting braggart of a candidate would be transformed into a statesman. However, as protesters took to the streets across the US and 59 other countries, it is clear that the new president’s choice to pursue the politics of nationalism and exclusion put him at odds with many. The most crucial of these battles is keeping what has been described as “democratic despotism” in check.

Trump has entered the White House at a time of unprecedented power wielded by the office of president; Republicans control the White House and both branches of Congress. However, the issue is not with the dominance of the Republican Party; it is rather with the president’s insistence on shooting from the hip, governing in a style that shows disdain for US institutions. The administration’s early executive actions are a perfect demonstration of textbook strongman tactics intended to distract and scare citizens. The president’s apparatus is also simultaneously deploying subterfuge in order to shrink public confidence to the point where it becomes impossible to differentiate truths from falsehoods. This is of concern as it creates an environment ill suited to fostering democratic government.

The political principle of the separation of powers is the backbone of good governance and critical to the functioning of the US government. Under the system, the specific powers of the executive, legislative and judiciary work in tandem to enshrine due process and to perpetuate a culture of checks and balances. With regards to the Trump presidency, this point is essential. The concept of keeping the government in check is not law, it is custom, and is hugely susceptible to the psychology and character of the commander-in-chief. Recent administrations have seen the powers vested in the president grow into what has been described as the “Imperial Presidency.” However where Presidents Bush and Obama understood the necessity to govern in unison with the other branches of government, President Trump’s confrontational initial fortnight in power has shown otherwise.

To halt a marked descent toward autocratic rule, US institutions and citizens must exercise their rights and channels of complaint so as to prevent the administration’s path toward unchecked power.

Zaid M. Belbagi 

The hurried issuance of Executive Order 13769 has illustrated the vein in which President Trump seeks to govern. Nothing short of a constitutional showdown is taking place in the US regarding the fallout from the order “Protecting the Nation from Terrorist Attacks by Foreign Nationals.” The xenophobic fervor with which the administration has sought to defend it has shown a preference to reject the politics of consensus. When Judge Robart, who was appointed by former President George Bush in 2003, ruled the executive order should be stopped nationwide, the administration’s response swerved away from rationality with the president tweeting about “this so-called judge.” Such blatant disregard for legal process and importantly, differing opinions, has come to characterize the new guard and raises very worrying questions about its capacity for the deal-making and coalition building which is so essential to governance of a country as diverse and internationally influential as the US. It has been noted that in addition to President Trump’s disregard for legal opinion, Neil Gorsuch’s possible confirmation to the US Supreme Court has delivered the final branch of government to Trump, giving him the tools to effectively govern through one-party rule. Hitherto, the Supreme Court appeared to be the only viable vehicle to secure plural democracy in the US political system, it too is in jeopardy.

The president’s relationship with the media has similarly been fraught with an authoritarian attitude toward the very concept of political debate. The president’s plain-talking style is what appealed to many voters disenchanted with entrenched Washington elites. However, his penchant for the vernacular risks debasing rational political discussion in place of valuing demagoguery. Great theorists of democracy including de Tocqueville and Bagehot have always labored this point — essentially how to guarantee that the masses are guided by their more educated peers in place of whipping up resentment and division through the shortsighted rhetoric. Such contempt for the role of the media is held throughout Trump’s inner circle. Steve Bannon, chief strategist at the White House and member of the National Security Council, has called out individual press outlets and journalists as enemies of the state. Though this is not illegal, such attitudes question tested norms regarding the role of the media in a democracy. It is clearly a violation of longstanding democratic norms concerning the importance of the freedom of the press. This attitude has been compounded by the US Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway’s reference to “alternative facts,” illustrating the administration has no qualms about using falsehoods to advance its agenda and combat criticism.

In a tweet on Monday, Trump outlined his opinions in no uncertain terms: “Any negative polls are fake news, just like the CNN, ABC, NBC polls in the election,” he said, “people want border security and extreme vetting.” As a mass protest movement stands ignored, the nation’s top law enforcement officers and legal specialists have had their loyalty questioned and the media stands accused of constant conspiracies while the Trump administration seems bent on creating division. There is no doubt that Trump will face constraints from Congress and from the federal system, which guarantees that great power is devolved to individual states. Nevertheless, to halt a marked descent toward autocratic rule, US institutions and citizens must exercise their rights and channels of complaint so as to prevent the administration’s path toward unchecked power.

• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator. He also acts as an adviser to private clients between London and the GCC.

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