Have We Figured Out Trumpism Yet?

Roundup
tags: populism, Trump



Kevin Mattson teaches American history at Ohio University. He is author, most recently, of Just Plain Dick: Richard Nixon’s Checkers Speech and the “Rocking, Socking” Election of 1952.

… [I]nstead of breaking down each and every executive action bit by bit, let’s step back and try to consider the essence of what is meant by an “executive action.” This would mean that, to understand the implications of these orders, we must not only consider the number (Obama issued more than Trump did during his first days in office), but, rather, their largesse: the “wall” with Mexico (whether or not we pay for it), the “travel ban” (the term the President uses, even if his press secretary doesn’t), the admittedly unclear “pathway” for dismantling the Affordable Care Act. In Trump speak, these are yuge. These are also executive actions that have been taken when Trump has Republican majorities in both houses. More telling still is how the Donald couples his orders with a bold, open attack on the judiciary branch, whose “so-called” judges he chides for being “so political,” and apparently unable to grasp what “a bad high school student would understand.” Trump suggests here that bold, aggressive action (as long as he is the one pursuing them) should never have to submit to judicial review or constitutional debate.

All of this suggests a particular kind of love for the notion of executive action as a good in and of itself, not a technique but a value-laden principle. It’s the love of the “unitary” executive branch, an idea reignited during the George W. Bush Administration (recall his “I’m the decider” line) but that reaches back to Richard Nixon’s time as President—in political theory terms, “decisionism.”

This outlook has become increasingly evident in Trump’s speech, his catchphrases, and his public announcements. Consider his spat with Rep. John Lewis. What mattered there wasn’t that Lewis has a remarkable track record in the civil rights movement (which is irrefutable). Trump was talking about Lewis as a Congressperson, suggesting that he hadn’t done much for his district recently. Unsurprisingly, this came after Lewis had needled Trump on a question that is consistently sure to get under his thin skin—the question of his “legitimacy”—a definite sore spot what with the loss of the popular vote and the stories of Russian influence on the election. Trump’s words for Lewis were telling: “All talk, no action.” That sounds an awful lot like criticisms that have been leveled at Congress and the Senate, two institutions that emphasize deliberation over centralized action, which is apparently different from how Trump perceives his own role.

In many ways, this view of unitary executive action over “talk” fits perfectly into our present-day “post-truth” dimension (perhaps best exemplified by the likes Kellyanne Conway). Great leaders generate their own truths. Steve Bannon, for one, took his views from Breitbart straight to the White House. In a 2015 interview with Bloomberg Businessweek, Bannon argued “that most readers don’t approach the news as a clinical exercise in absorbing facts, but experience it viscerally as an ongoing drama, with distinct story lines, heroes, and villains.” Here, fear of the unknown—the next terror attack just around the corner—will win out anytime against concern for constitutional order or with whether or not a policy will work in reality. Likewise, the President is not just the acting man-in-chief, he’s the one often creating his own narrative, forging a new “reality” as he goes along. ...




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