Forget the State of the Union—How Is the State of the Republic?
The state of our union is, above all, prosperous, President Trump said Tuesday night in his address to Congress, pointing to record levels of employment. Others can cite worrisome signs of malaise, like the epidemic in opioid abuse. Let’s recast the matter: How goes, it might be asked, the state of our republic? To phrase the question that way is to inquire, foremost, into the health of the building blocks of our democracy, the core institutions needed to sustain an experiment in government “of the people, by the people, for the people,” as Lincoln put it in the Gettysburg Address.
The answer, according to pessimists of assorted ideological hues, is that the republic is frail to the point of decrepitude. That’s the diagnosis of bestselling books like David Frum’s Trumpocracy. The main threat, according to this view, is that the head of state, Donald Trump, is an autocrat in ambition if not (yet) in actual being. Plausible reasons do exist to be concerned about Trump on these grounds, as in his repeated threat to declare a national emergency in order to build a wall on our southern border, when no such emergency seems apparent. And yet, two years into this presidency, we are not living in anything like a “Trumpocracy.” You wouldn’t know it from the worrywarts, but the republic is proving resilient, and on close inspection, its most serious ailment has nothing to do with our president.
Let’s start with the easiest proof of civic vigor: our Fourth Estate. “The national press is likely to be among the first institutional victims of Trumpism,” the Russian-American writer Masha Gessen wrote in an article titled “Autocracy: Rules for Survival,” published two days after Trump’s election. “The power of the investigative press,” especially, “will grow weaker,” she forecasted. Not quite. The Trump era has been a feast for investigative journalism, a bounty not seen since the troubled days of the Nixon administration. Trump himself has been probed in every conceivable way, from his connections to Russia to his financial past—the second being the subject of a New York Times special report in October 2018, running to 11 printed pages. Viewers of this year’s Super Bowl, broadcast by CBS, saw an ad for the Washington Post, voiceover by Tom Hanks, touting the paper’s slogan, “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” Trump’s son Donald Jr. responded by castigating the newspaper, in a tweet, as a fountain of “leftist BS,” to zero effect. Thomas Jefferson—“the only security of all is in a free press,” he told Lafayette—surely rests easy in his grave at Monticello.
What about our judicial branch, with apologies to Jefferson, on a par with the press as a guarantor of our security? Here again, it’s difficult to find cause for worry. It might be recalled that on the eighth day of his presidency, Trump signed an executive order banning travel to the U.S. by foreign nationals from seven mainly Muslim countries—a hasty action that threw airports from Boston to Los Angeles into chaos and seemed designed to create a sense of panic to allow the Trump White House to speed into law a sweeping anti-immigrant agenda. But a federal district judge in Seattle issued an order temporarily blocking the ban from being put into place, the order applying nationwide. Regular constitutional procedure prevailed, and the administration’s lawyers had to defend their action in court, with pesky critics like the American Civil Liberties Union given a chance to weigh in with their briefs.
Trump, of course, grumbles about such challenges, tending to paint the judiciary, or at least portions of it, as captured by hostile, possibly even illegitimate, liberal renegades. “It’s a disgrace when every case gets filed in the 9th Circuit,” he declared last November, referring to the Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. “That’s not law. Every case in the 9th Circuit we get beaten.” With a measured but unmistakable rebuke of these intemperate words, in stepped an improbable face of the Trump Resistance: Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, an appointee of President George W. Bush. “We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges,” Roberts said in a statement released to the press. “What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them. That independent judiciary is something we should all be thankful for.” Roberts, perhaps, overdid it; judges often enough do come to the bench with liberal or conservative approaches to the law. But there could be no doubting his commitment to the separation of powers that gives our republic strength.
Jerome Powell, too, seems an unlikely resister. The chairman of the Federal Reserve Board hails from Wall Street, his career as a lawyer and an investment banker devoted to the making of money. A Republican, he owes his appointment as Fed chief to Trump. But Powell also knows that the Federal Reserve is a creature of Congress, established by the legislative branch as an independent agency of government, and by tradition a proud guardian of that independence. Unlike a Cabinet official, say, he does not serve at the pleasure of the president—in this case, a president who has often criticized his stewardship of monetary policy. And so, at the beginning of this year, when asked at a public appearance whether he would resign under pressure from Trump, he answered with one word: “No.” Score another positive for the republic: the insulation of our monetary policymakers from the whims of elected officials is also a kind of security, the best protection we have from the debasement of our currency by inflation.
The notion that the American republic is ailing has more going for it when the focus shifts to Congress. Our spate of government shutdowns, for which both the legislative branch and the executive branch bear responsibility, suggests a form of rot—a chronic failure by the people’s representatives to meet the bare minimum expected of them. One reason for this failure is the entrenchment of the two political parties, seemingly committed to fighting every battle as if it will be the last. The Constitution makes no mention of political parties; the Framers were not wrong to see in them the carriers of dangerous faction, liable to be unchecked and imbalanced.
Still, Congress’s dysfunction can be overstated. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, with Republican Richard Burr of North Carolina as chairman and Democrat Mark Warner of Virginia as vice chairman, has managed to conduct an evenhanded bipartisan investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. The Democrats, with their new majority in the House of Representatives, can be expected to mount aggressive oversight of the Republican-controlled executive branch. While it is certainly possible that the Democrats will let their partisan animosities get the better of them, there are items on their target list of genuine public interest—for example, the sluggish federal response to Hurricane Maria, the 2017 storm that crippled Puerto Rico. Demanding the president’s tax returns from the Internal Revenue Service, as the House Ways and Means Committee is likely to do, is expressly allowed by a 1924 law enacted to address the Harding administration’s Teapot Dome scandal. Congressional oversight, at its best, is a civic virtue, a tradition as old as a House select committee’s probe of a botched military mission in George Washington’s first term. Voters can decide if Congress goes too far.
The Mueller investigation is a mixed example, health-of-the-republic wise. On the one hand, it can be taken as a good sign that part of the executive branch, the Justice Department, has the gumption to appoint a special counsel to probe possible misdeeds by a sitting president. On the other, critics can fairly wonder whether the Federal Bureau of Investigation, an agency with a tradition of overreach, harbors an animus against the president and his circle and is determined to take him down through undemocratic, bureaucratic means. At this point, the Mueller probe looks like a net positive; a more confident assessment can be offered when Mueller wraps up, whenever that might be.
So what, then, truly threatens the republic, given that the press and the courts are robust, that Congress is not altogether a hapless mess, that the chief executive is not beyond the reach of his Justice Department, and that officials like Powell understand where their authority originates? The answer: the nation’s lurch into imperial mission, into the realm of empire, the age-old problem that afflicted the ancient Roman Republic and others after it. The predicament can be seen in America’s follies in the Middle East, a region that we have tried to bend to our will, time and again, from the overthrow of the Mossadegh regime in Iran in 1953 to the invasion of Saddam’s Iraq in 2003, with damaging results that endure to this day.
Herein is a striking irony of the Trump era. The president, an aspirational autocrat by the lights of Frum et al., is actually, by instinct, something of an anti-imperialist, an out-of-character trait for the role his many critics have assigned him. He may yet conform to their expectations, as in his rumblings about Venezuela, but his calls for an end to U.S. involvement in the “forever war” in Afghanistan and for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria distress the foreign-policy elite, which still embraces the role of the U.S. as global policeman. It’s our swollen “national-security state,” a kind of government within a government, that sometimes seems to enjoy unbridled authority. Yet even on this front, there is reason for hope. The president probably has a sizable majority of Americans with him on his idea to pare back our foreign entanglements, and principled anti-imperial voices on both Right and Left, from The American Conservative to The Nation, offer encouragement.
It’s a republic “if you can keep it,” Benjamin Franklin is said to have remarked at the close of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, and we have—so far. That assessment, like any State of the Union address, is a contingent one, captive to the moment. But in this moment, at least, the state of the republic holds firm.
Paul Starobin, the author of After America: Narratives for the Next Global Age and Madness Rules the Hour: Charleston, 1860 and the Mania for War, is writing a book about the Alaska gold rush of 1900.
Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images
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