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The Imperial Presidency Embodies Political and Economic Hubris

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Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger coined the term “imperial presidency” in the 1960s. It was meant to indicate that the role of the president of the United States had dramatically grown in the 20th century from being an important but fairly limited position of implementing the laws of the land as specified in the Constitution and congressional legislation to being the national chief executive wielding wide discretionary powers over both domestic and foreign affairs.

Most presidents from Woodrow Wilson to Barack Obama have relished having and extending such powers. Wilson believed the traditional Constitution, with its division of powers not only between the three branches of the federal government but between Washington, D.C,. and the individual states, was out of date, an anachronism of an earlier time that needed to be superseded by a concentration of authority and control in the central government.

Franklin D. Roosevelt presided over a new and vast growth in federal power with the New Deal agenda during the Great Depression of the 1930s and then during the war years of the 1940s. An alphabet soup of government agencies, bureaus, and departments swarmed over the country, extending the tentacles of Washington’s control over nearly every facet of social and economic life, including in the early years of the New Deal a comprehensive fascist-like central planning over industry and agriculture. Government spending and taxing also had never been so large, coming along with a new era of budget deficits creating a massive (for that time) national debt.

Presidential Powers at Home and Abroad

In the post–World War II era, another dimension to presidential power was added in the form of foreign wars and major military actions without congressional approval through official declarations of war. President Harry Truman initiated America’s participation in the Korean War through declaring it a “police action” approved by the Security Council of the United Nations.

American military intervention in Vietnam came from a trick by President Lyndon Johnson involving a made-up incident in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964, in which the White House claimed that North Vietnamese gunboats had attacked U.S. naval vessels in international waters. At home, the Johnson administration instituted a series of domestic “wars” on poverty, illiteracy, racism, inequality, and on and on, all bringing with them new federal programs, departments, and agencies with increasing power over economic and social affairs under the oversight of the chief executive in the Oval Office, with diminished state-level responsibilities and accountability to the citizens of the states. (See my article “Paternalistic Follies of the 1960s: Vietnam and the Great Society.”)

This trend has continued ever since, from Ronald Reagan’s invasion of Grenada and George H. W. Bush’s military intervention in Panama, to Bill Clinton’s military action in Somalia and bombing of Serbia, to George W. Bush’s invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, to Barack Obama’s involvement in the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and the new world of drone warfare in various places in the Middle East, with Obama personally presiding over the selection and ordering of the attacks on human targets.

Whether it is the growth in government spending, taxing, and regulation, or the use of discretionary presidential power both domestically and in other parts of the world, every president usually has covered his extra-constitutional usurpations and actions with soothing words and moralizing rhetoric of such ideals as justice, freedom, and fairness.

Trump Follows in the Same Footsteps, but More Crudely

The rhetoric lasted until Donald Trump assumed the office of the presidency. What drives critics in the Democratic Party and on the “progressive” political left crazy and what embarrasses a good number of conservatives and some members of the Republican Party is that Trump chooses to do many of the same things that previous administrations controlled alternately by both political parties have done, but he does not envelop it with the same candy-coated rationales.

For more than 70 years, American administrations beginning with FDR have played nice with the House of Saud in Saudi Arabia. President after president has usually looked the other way in the face of authoritarian policies and religious intolerance and persecutions that have kept the Saudi family in power in that desert kingdom.

The Saudi government has tortured and executed opponents of the regime; it has denied any basic civil liberties to women; and it has cultivated extremist religious sects within Islam in pursuit of domestic and foreign policies. And now an international scandal has been created with the murder of a high-profile Saudi journalist in that country’s consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.

The world has been equally shocked by President Trump’s response: Well, who knows if the crown prince of Saudi Arabia really was involved in ordering the murder; besides, the Saudi government buys a lot of U.S. military hardware, supports our campaign against Iran, and keeps world oil prices low. In the balance of things, bad things happen but good allies are hard to find. Cold-blooded realpolitik is the order of the day; the traditional verbal niceties be damned.

Trump’s Political Demagoguery No Different Than Others’

In the current administration, the mask is torn off. Politics and presidential power are seen in all their presumption and arrogant arbitrariness. On November 25, the Washington Post ran a story on White House budgetary plans in the face of the return of $1 trillion budget deficits with the 2019 federal fiscal year that began on October 1. A few weeks ago, the president told a cabinet meeting that he expected proposals from each department on where to cut their respective budgets by 5 percent to try to get the budget deficit down. (See my article “$1 Trillion Deficits and the Crisis of the Entitlement State.”)

But the Post reported that when staff members suggested cuts in Medicare, Trump’s response was that “Medicare is popular … and voters wanted it.” When Senator Bob Corker told Trump that he should push more for getting the deficit under control, the president dismissed the idea, saying, “The people want their money” in the form of the entitlement programs, according to two people knowledgeable about this conversation during a round of golf.

In almost-stereotypical populist demagoguery, the president warns of the danger of out-of-control government spending that needs to be reined in. But behind the scenes, he is planning his voter strategy for his 2020 reelection: Give the people what they want, and what they want is government-funded medical care and their Social Security payments. “The people want their money,” as he said. Political support comes from bread and circuses, as has been known since the time of the ancient Romans and the policies that brought about the demise of their empire. (See my article “The Ancient Romans, Who Went From Rule of Law to Corrupting Inflation and Price Controls.”)

But what other president in living memory, or beyond, has not primarily followed the same general strategy? As one of FDR’s leading staff members summarized the essence of modern democratic politics: “Spend, spend, spend; elect, elect, elect.” Was this any less crude than Trump’s reported words? Or when Richard Nixon decided to play up a “war on drugs” to weaken the black vote against him leading up to the 1972 election? More-left-of-center presidents and politicians have spoken of social justice, income equality, socially needed programs and expenditures, and the general welfare. But in what way were the message and the motive any different than Donald Trump’s?

Telling Businesses What to Do, Just Like Other Presidents

On November 26, the Wall Street Journal reported that General Motors had announced major employment and automobile manufacturing cutbacks, with nearly 15,000 workers to be let go and three factories being shut down. GM’s CEO, Mary Barra, explained that this was to position the automobile company when looking years ahead from now in terms of the numbers and type of cars they will be focusing on in the future.

What was Trump’s response? In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, the president said in reference to a planned closing of a GM plant in Ohio that he had told Ms. Barra, “I love Ohio. You are playing around with the wrong person.” He said to the Journal reporter, “They better damn well open a new plant there very quickly.” Trump said he had said to GM’s CEO, “It’s not going to be closed for long, I hope, Mary, because if it is you have a problem.… I said, ‘then put in a car that  is selling well, but get it open fast.’”

Here on display is the fullest of presidential hubris, the presumption that he can tell a prominent private sector corporate executive where to operate the company’s manufacturing facilities — and it better be soon, with a clear implication that the president  would be making trouble for that company if it did not listen.

How? Uncle Sam’s taxing and regulatory arms extend far and wide across the land, and just a word — a hint down the chain of command from the Oval Office — and a swarm of bureaucrats can wreck hell on the financial and business affairs of any person or company in the country. (See my article “Presidential Hubris: ‘Let Me Run the Country.’”)

But, again, which president has not played the same arm-twisting game to get their way with private enterprise? Harry Truman seized the steel mills during the Korean War to force a labor deal on management and the unions. John Kennedy went in for jawboning business on prices and wages. And in autumn 2008, near the end of the Bush administration, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke forced many leading American bank executives to accept an inflow of federal money to shore up their institutions’ capital position in exchange for ceding some stock ownership to the government, whether or not some of those bank executives wanted that partial nationalization of their businesses.

When Paulson and Bernanke told a group of those banking executives in October 2008 that the two would not be leaving the Treasury building in Washington, D.C., until the bankers had signed the papers transferring over partial ownership of their institutions to the government, the Treasury secretary and the Fed chairman said that this was a national emergency requiring quick action to save the country from a banking collapse. The demand was couched in patriotism, the national interest, and the good of the country. But it was arm twisting, nonetheless, in that the government was forcing a group of prominent financial leaders to accept the government’s deal, regardless of whether they wanted it or needed it.

How is this any different in its essential quality — government forcing private enterprises to do what it wants under threat of political coercion — than Donald Trump’s warning to the CEO of General Motors? And why the latter threat? Because Ohio helped Trump win the 2016 election, and he is damn well going to see that Ohioans are good and happy in their work so they will vote for him again in 2020.

Trade Wars Equal Imperial Hubris

Finally, there is President Trump’s wielding a phone and a pen to impose up to 25 percent import tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars of Chinese goods through discretionary executive authority. That this will significantly raise the cost of living for tens of millions of American consumers, that this will increase the manufacturing expenses of thousands of American businesses importing component parts and a variety of raw materials from China, that it is already costing American farmers parts of their export trade because of retaliatory Chinese import taxes, and that this will disrupt and imbalance many intricate supply chains through which enterprises are interconnected across the globe all falls by the wayside in the face of an arrogant and pretentious president who thinks he knows how to strong-arm other governments to get his way. (See my articles “Tariff Walls and Trade Wars Equal Government Planning” and “Trump’s Economic Warfare Targets Innocent Bystanders.”)

In the interview with the Wall Street Journal, Trump was asked if he could count on the support of the American people if he slapped on new and higher import duties on Chinese goods. The president replied, “Depends on what the rate is. I mean I can make it 10 percent, and people could stand that very easily.” So the trick is to bully China into doing what he wants, but not so much that the tariffs lose him votes in November 2020.

Trump a Product of Prior Presidential Power Lusting

Most politicians go about the task of getting elected and then using their office to serve the special interest groups that provided them with the campaign contributions and votes that got them the power they relish and seem to be unable to live without. But they do all in their ability to get people not to look behind the curtain, as in The “Wizard of Oz — “behind” being where the ugly political trade-offs are made to win the plunder and privileges for which much of politics is fought.

Trump lives most of the time in front of the curtain, with the curtain partly open behind him. He “loves” Ohio, and most people understand that it is not because he loves being there or loves all things made or done in Ohio. No, it is just that it is a swing state and he will need both its popular and electoral votes in the next showdown for who lives in the White House for the four years starting in January 2021.

In many ways, in spite of all the anger and animosity that the president stirs up in a large number of people, he is really nothing more than the end product of the big government and imperial presidency that emerged and have solidified over the last more than one hundred years since before the First World War. Trump is the political establishment of power, privilege, plunder, and patronage. He worked his way up in the real estate market by knowing how to wheel and deal through many corridors of political power at the federal and state levels of government. Many Democrats who scorn him and desire to bring him down were his willing partners in taking his campaign contributions and enabling a variety of his real estate deals and hotel activities.

He is the arrogance of political power, unable to understand why he cannot just tell the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board that the latter needs to stop raising interest rates and even lower them so it’s  less expensive to fund the government’s budget deficits. Just set the rate of interest at whatever the president wants. That interest rates, like all other prices in the market, are not arbitrary numbers, but should be the interactive result of savers and investors is a simple truth that seems to be beyond Donald Trump’s understanding. (See my article “Interest Rates Need to Tell the Truth.”)

Only a Turn to Liberty Can Bring Change

Impeaching the president or defeating him in 2020, as many Democrats and “progressives” would be most delighted to do, would merely change the name of the person holding that office and wielding its power. Whoever follows Trump might make many of those on “the left” happy if it is someone of their points-of-view. And many a Republican would not mind if a dark horse were to end up running against and defeating Trump in the 2020 primaries, and then successfully keeping the White House in their party’s hands.

But whether it were to be a Democrat or some other Republican sitting in the Oval Office come January 2021 instead of Trump, what they do and how they do it will, invariably, reflect the imperial presidency. What will separate a Democrat in the White House from some other Republican is for what they use that executive authority and for what goals and purposes that vast concentrated bureaucracy of federal power will be employed. The answer to that question is no doubt important and may lead many a thoughtful citizen to vote one way or the other, if they choose to vote.

But the system will go on with a president’s imperial powers and authority to be used to benefit some at the expense of others, to manipulate and command the actions and interactions of tens of millions of people, to redirect and misdirect the production and supplying of various goods and services from the paths that would have been taken if businesspersons were completely free to just decide and follow what they consider to be the patterns of consumer demands as worked out through free market competition unrestrained by government command, control, and manipulation. (See my article “Donald Trump the Creation of America’s Bankrupt Politics.”)

The system will change, the “swamp” can be drained, the crony politics of favors, privileges, and plunder will be more or less eliminated, only by an end to the imperial presidency and all that goes with it in the halls of government power. That requires a restoration and renewal of the original idea and ideals of the American system that reduces the size and scope of government back to what the founding fathers envisaged and attempted to limit in the Constitution.

In other words, what is needed is a much smaller government so that free individuals can be freer to make more of their own decisions in guiding their own lives rather than a big government with an “imperial” president arrogantly attempting to command and control them.

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    Dr. Richard M. Ebeling is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel. He was formerly professor of Economics at Northwood University, president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).