Given how little Donald Trump knows about government, policy, the public sector, and public institutions, it’s difficult to say exactly how he’d govern if elected president. But the New York Times reports today that legal experts from across the spectrum believe the presumptive Republican nominee has sketched out “a constitutional worldview that shows contempt for the First Amendment, the separation of powers and the rule of law.”
Indeed, the article quoted a variety of conservative and libertarian legal scholars who fear a Trump presidency could create “a constitutional crisis” if/when the political amateur took steps to implement some of his stated goals: banning Muslims from entering the country, “loosening” libel laws to encourage lawsuits against news organizations, and even using federal regulators to punish his detractors.
David Post, a retired law professor who now writes for the Washington Post’s Volokh Conspiracy, said in reference to Trump’s attacks on a judge he doesn’t like, “This is how authoritarianism starts.” UC Berkely’s John Yoo, best known as the author of the Bush/Cheney Torture Memos, called Trump’s perspective “disturbing.”
And when John Yoo thinks your views on government abuses are excessive, it’s probably time to re-think your life choices.
But perhaps most interesting was the response from congressional Republicans to these kinds of concerns. From the Times’ report:
Republican leaders say they are confident that Mr. Trump would respect the rule of law if elected. “He’ll have a White House counsel,” Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, told Hugh Hewitt, the radio host, on Monday. “There will be others who point out there’s certain things you can do and you can’t do.”Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, who has become a reluctant supporter of Mr. Trump, said he did not believe that the nation would be in danger under his presidency.“I still believe we have the institutions of government that would restrain someone who seeks to exceed their constitutional obligations,” Mr. McCain said. “We have a Congress. We have the Supreme Court. We’re not Romania.”“Our institutions, including the press, are still strong enough to prevent” unconstitutional acts, he said.
Oh, good, we’ve apparently reached a new point in our discourse. Leading Republican members of Congress are reassuring the public that their party’s presidential nominee probably won’t be a Constitution-ignoring authoritarian – and if he is, there are probably institutions in place to stop him.
Putting aside whether their optimism is warranted, since when does the United States even have to ask questions like these?
The Atlantic published a piece from David Frum the other day about democracy’s “guardrails” and the degree to which Trump “snapped through” them while undermining traditional American norms. The response from GOP lawmakers like McConnell and McCain seems to be that, if elected, there’s another set of structural constraints that would prevent a President Trump from doing catastrophic damage to our system of government.
Their sanguine posturing is probably meant to be reassuring, but the broader question remains the same: why would the country elect someone who intends to deliberately put unprecedented strains on those guardrails?