Did Dick Cheney indirectly pave the way for Donald Trump? It’s not as absurd as it sounds. And no, I’m not talking about backlash from the Iraq war, although that’s part of the story.
Presidential elections can serve as reactions to the last president. We saw that when the American public replaced a swaggering Texan named George W. Bush with a bookish urbanite named Barack Obama. But this observation deserves an asterisk. Donald Trump’s rise does not suggest the Republican base is in the mood to swap out a hubris-laden President Obama for a humble, limited government, rule of law fetishist.
Quite the contrary—the response to Obama’s penchant for unilateralism seems to be a desire to find our own strongman. But really, this is a pattern. It’s hard to criticize Obama’s executive overreach on the heels of Vice President Dick Cheney.
But then, this is a long story that goes back almost to our nation’s founding. The Founders might have feared “Caeserism” and put systems in place to ensure checks and balances to curtail the rise of an imperial presidency, but—almost from the beginning—the temptation is toward the accretion of executive power.
John Adams famously pushed his deplorable Alien and Sedition Acts, and FDR ordered the internment of Japanese-Americans — something Donald Trump cited as a precedent for banning all Muslim immigrants.
But it was probably technology that set the course for our permanent trajectory, thus preventing the pendulum from ever again swinging back toward a humble executive model that someone like “silent” Calvin Coolidge might have liked.
According to author Gary Willis’s book “Bomb Power,” the rise of the atomic bomb “redefined Congress as an executor of the executive” and it “redefined the Supreme Court, as a follower of the follower of the executive.” As Willis explains, “If the president has sole authority to launch nation-destroying weapons, he has a license to use every other power at his disposal that might safeguard that supreme necessity.”
Although the modern trajectory has been toward a robust presidency, Dick Cheney’s formative years happen to have occurred in the wake of Watergate and Vietnam—a brief interregnum when the presidency suffered from a crisis of confidence. For this reason, he seems to have devoted a disproportionate amount of energy into strengthening the executive branch. “I believe in a strong, robust executive authority,” Cheney told reporters in 2005, “and I think that the world we live in demands it—and to some extent that we have an obligation as the administration to pass on the offices we hold to our successors in as good of shape as we found them.”
To most of us, this felt like a solution in need of a problem. I mean, most of us would probably say that the power of Congress has been usurped.
Granted, the context of Cheney’s comments was a post-9/11 world and, more specifically, the issue of domestic spying. But Cheney’s interest in executive authority seems to have been almost incidental to the attacks.
Of all the important projects a sitting vice president could devote time to, was expanding the authority of the president really the most pressing project, especially for a conservative administration?
“The great irony is Bush inherited the strongest presidency of anyone since Franklin Roosevelt, and Cheney acts as if he’s still under the constraints of 1973 or 1974.” New Hampshire Sen. John E. Sununu told the Washington Post at the time: “The vice president may be the only person I know of that believes the executive has somehow lost power over the last 30 years.”
At a time when conservatives should have been working to curtail executive overreach, a Republican administration was forcefully pushing for the opposite. The fact that executive branches—regardless of party—inherently want to increase their power is obviously a big part of the story. Nobody ever wants less power.
For numerous reasons, the Bush presidency led to the election of Barack Obama, who greatly curtailed the power of the presidency and ushered in an era of transparency.
Just kidding. He did the opposite.
Obama used procedural gimmicks to ram through his landmark health care legislation, unilaterally altering the law to make it compliant. Citing “prosecutorial discretion,” he also decided not to enforce immigration laws, despite having said 22 times that he couldn’t constitutionally do what he ultimately did. He also tried to circumvent the Senate by issuing “recess appointments.” The Federalist’s David Harsanyi has argued that Obama’s “most destructive legacy” might be “the mainstreaming of the idea that if Congress ‘fails to act’ it’s okay for the president to figure out a way to make law himself.”
This, of course, leads me to Donald Trump—a man who most assuredly has strong authoritarian tendencies. Rather than being a check against Obama’s executive overreach, he would be a right-wing version of Obama—a cult of personality who wouldn’t let a little thing like the Constitution prevent him from keeping the trains from running on time.
“If I become president, we’re gonna be saying Merry Christmas at every store,” he promises us.
Half of me likes the sound of that; the other half is afraid he would actually find a way to enforce it.