As a boy growing up in the 1950s, I believed that America was the strongest and most generous nation in the world. I was certain that our democracy would never fail. That’s because the checks and balances enshrined in the Constitution would prevent any one person or group from getting too much power.
As I came of age in the ’60s, my naïve vision of America as an ideal nation gave way to the realization that America was not always right, that racism was still rampant, that our leaders did not always act honorably. It was the era of Woodstock, Watergate and Vietnam, a time of excruciating disillusionment with government leaders who lied and tried to cover up their schemes and failures. But through it all, I knew that America was still a great nation and I never doubted that our democracy, with its checks and balances, could weather any storm, including the ambitions of leaders who cared more for themselves than their country.
I’m not so sure anymore.
President Donald Trump appears to be sweeping away the final vestiges of resistance in his quest for a total consolidation of power. Many Americans still believe that the checks and balances are resilient enough to repel even his most determined attacks. But these checks are more fragile than most of us are willing to admit. If Trump wins a second term, that fragility may become distressfully apparent.
The three branches of government — legislative, executive and judiciary — are mandated by the Constitution to share the powers of government; separate but equal. But the president is engaged in a nonstop effort to gain control over all three. He already has an unprecedented iron grip on the executive branch, including what I fear is the politicization of the military, whose top officers are coming under harsh criticism by the president; a possible prelude to replacing them with officers who are more subservient to his personal aspirations.
That leaves the legislative and judiciary branches to check his power.
Congress (the legislative branch) is plagued by an unceasing escalation of partisan rancor, rendering it mostly unable to pass bipartisan legislation. It has surrendered its responsibilities to the executive and judiciary branches. Recent presidents have taken to passing what are called executive orders to bypass Congress. The orders are used to dictate decisions on issues that Congress should be dealing with. Trump has eagerly filled the vacuum by signing such orders at a rate unseen in generations. In his first 100 days in office, he issued 24 executive orders — the highest total of any president since World War II, according to the American Presidency Project at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He’s averaged nearly 50 orders per year, the most since Ronald Reagan.
Don’t count on Congress as a check.
Several of Trump’s executive orders, along with many other of his actions, have been challenged in court (the judiciary branch). With Congress out of the way, the courts are the only remaining check against an overreaching president. To fix that, he’s making impressive strides in appointing conservative federal judges friendly to his agenda. He’s already appointed two like-minded justices to the Supreme Court and, before the end of this term, will likely replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was a liberal, with another conservative as her death last week has opened another vacancy. If reelected, there’s a possibility he could replace yet another justice, depending on the health of liberal Justice Stephen Breyer, who is 82. He has already filled nearly a quarter of all active federal judgeships. If he wins a second term, he is almost certain to accelerate the appointments, further stacking the judiciary in his favor.
Forget the judiciary branch as a final check.
The American people face a presidential election that ranks among the most important in the history of the nation. Donald Trump’s instincts are to wrap himself in unchallenged power. If he wins a second term, and Republicans retain control of the Senate, his ambitions will meet little resistance. The Constitution is fragile. James Madison, revered as the father of the Constitution, warned that “The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive and judiciary, in the same hands … may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”
Only the voters stand in the way.
Larry Alan Brown is a former journalist and government improvement advocate. His website is www.larryalanbrown.com.