By David K. Shipler
You’ve got to hand it to Donald Trump. He’s gone from construction to destruction while scarcely missing a beat. After a real estate career doing deals to build hotels and resorts, he has not constructed a thing to advance the country since becoming president—not a coherent policy, not a beneficial program, not an international agreement, not even the ill-conceived wall that he promised falsely would be paid for by Mexico.
Instead, he relishes firing people and publicly undermines those who still work for him. He bulldozes the structures of government that protect Americans from dirty air, poisonous water, unsafe workplaces, corporate exploitation, inferior health coverage, and racial discrimination. He halts reform efforts in the criminal justice system. He introduces new toxicity into the country’s divides along political, ethnic, class, and racial lines. Years of progress are being rapidly reversed.
He has driven wedges into our international alliances, made adversaries of friends, and set out to tear apart painstakingly negotiated agreements that promote trade and curb disastrous global warming. He has threatened to obliterate North Korea over its nuclear weapons, yet he simultaneously strives to torpedo the agreement that has suspended Iran’s rush toward such weapons. In the unlikely event that North Korea ever considers a deal with the US relinquishing its nuclear programs, it would have to doubt America’s trustworthiness, as Pyongyang’s Foreign Ministry has said.
For Trump has shown the United States government to be unreliable in its promises abroad and to its own people. It has been erratic and unpredictable in a manner that erodes the rule of law, which requires legal stability and consistency.
Trump’s wrecking ball, which he wields with a self-satisfied smirk whenever he signs an executive order, makes it impossible for health insurers, patients, doctors, and hospitals to navigate with assurance through the complex finances of medical care. Business ventures that trade internationally, American farmers who export to Canada and Mexico, health services that treat women overseas, immigrants who seek an American life, foreign leaders who have depended on the American umbrella of protection and leadership, and myriad others can no longer count on the United States government.
This is deeply unsettling. The disruption reaches far beyond Trump’s intemperate tweets, his vulgar personal clashes, and his incessant lies. Mostly in the name of undoing everything with former President Barack Obama’s name attached, Trump seems indifferent to the harm caused to vulnerable people, from women in Madagascar who can no longer get contraceptives through a non-governmental organization dependent on US funds, to American voters of his who will now find their health premiums skyrocketing because he is merrily cutting off government subsidies. They will surely distrust government even more than they did before, when their alienation led to Trump’s victory.
Fortunately, he does not head a dictatorship, for he would be a cruel and vindictive autocrat if he had his way. He would not only urge that NBC stations’ broadcast licenses be revoked for news stories he dislikes; he would revoke them. He would not only call for an end to tax breaks for the NFL in retaliation for players’ kneeling during the national anthem; he would end them. He would not only denounce the critical media for “fake news” when it told unwelcome truths; he would close them down.
But we have our Constitution, and while some Republican extremists on the right would very much like to convene a constitutional convention to dilute the protected rights, the great document still stands, a bulwark against most egregious governmental actions. The judiciary, while performing inconsistently, can be counted nonetheless to apply constitutional principles with care, if not always with wisdom.
The failing branch has been the legislative. The Republicans who led Congress during most of Obama’s eight years were simply obstructionist, provoking him to work around them by effectively legislating through executive orders: to issue regulations restricting pollution by coal plants, for example; curtailing water pollution; funding subsidies to reduce health insurance premiums for low-income Americans; and allowing “Dreamers”—young people brought to the US illegally as small children—to stay in the country.
Sound arguments can be made that all these orders and more required legislative action; indeed, a federal district court judge has ruled the health subsidies unconstitutional absent congressional approval.
But the Republican-led Congress, even with a nominal Republican in the White House, is so strangled by impractical ideological mêlées and a president who knows only combat, not persuasion, that it is still abrogating its responsibility to work across the aisle with Democrats and help govern. That has provoked Trump to undo Obama’s orders by the same means, throwing destructive uncertainty into insurance markets, international trade, environmental protection, and other facets of human endeavor.
The Framers, wary of an overpowered executive, understood clearly the necessity of checks and balances among the three branches. While it’s hard to think that they ever imagined a figure like Trump as president, they had experienced King George III. That was more than enough.