Checks and the dangers of political hero worship

For those who revere the new tax legislation, December 20, 2017 was a memorable day.  To those who revere the constitutional separation of powers, it was also a memorable day — but for all of the wrong reasons.

After passage of the tax bill in each chamber, but before signing it, the President hosted Republican members of Congress at the White House.  Had they gathered for a traditional bill signing, or perhaps a holiday mixer full of lively conversation and egg nog, the gathering would have been relatively unremarkable.  What transpired there, however, was, to a constitutionalist, utterly chilling.  Speaker after speaker sung the praises of President Trump (see this WaPo piece). This kind of praise may actually reflect a deification of the President, and the presidency itself, that troubles modern constitutional politics and complicates the separation of powers.

Now, it is important not to overstate the problem.  The Constitution requires that the President and Congress agree on legislation before it can become law.  It is not constitutionally problematic that the White House and the Congress have some meeting of the minds on legislation.  Nor is it constitutionally problematic, or even uncommon, that members of Congress compliment the President when they are in agreement with him on some matter of public importance.  This happens in other presidencies, too.  But this event went beyond the kind of constitutionally necessary departmental duality that characterizes lawmaking pursuant to Article I, section 7.  And these were not merely kind words or gestures of respect.  Rather, it was the kind of effusive hero worship that has become all-too-common in the President’s orbit.  When it comes from Congress, it is a special problem.  Congress is not supposed to be in the President’s orbit.

It is common to hear talk of Donald Trump’s demands for loyalty.  Loyalty is one thing; supporting the boss publicly is one thing.  This is different.  Trump seems to prefer, if not demand, gushing, melodramatic praise that treats him as an omnipotent and omnibenevolent deity.  All that is good flows from him; all that is not is someone else’s fault.  One wonders whether these men and women ever spoke of Lincoln or Reagan the way that they spoke about President Trump last week.

There are, of course, practical, even strategic, reasons for this kind of public worship — assuming one does not actually worship President Trump.

First, those who work for the President may do this because it may be what he expects of them and anything less would jeopardize their position.  (consider the similarly pathetic cabinet meeting earlier this year, which one reporter described as the “weirdest cabinet meeting ever.”  See here.).  But this would not explain such adulation from a member of Congress, unless the member is under the impression that he works for the President — a deeply ignorant notion but one that is not at all off of the table in the modern Congress when it is controlled by the same party as the President.

Second, one may offer flattery for the purposes of extracting some benefit.  It must be one of the worst-kept secrets in Washington: if you want something from President Trump, simply go on television and talk about him as if he is a god.  Perhaps, then, it was this second explanation that applies to the tax bill gathering last week.  After all, what better way to secure the President’s support for all manner of other policies than to lavish him with adoration?  If so, it is politically understandable, but no less troubling to those of us who still regard the constitutional separation of powers as worthy of preservation.  Here’s why.

The deification of the presidency only amplifies the powers of the executive at the expense of others in the constitutional system.  This is inconsistent with the Constitution’s distribution of power and is especially unnerving when the President is already prone to unreasonable self-aggrandizement.  It also sends a signal that Republicans in Congress have now officially anchored themselves to the President.  That makes it all the more difficult to resist the President when he comes calling, all the more difficult to publicly disagree with the President, and all the more difficult to serve as an effective constitutional check on the President.  Critical checks — rejecting legislative recommendations, conducting effective oversight, and engaging in meaningful investigation of executive wrongdoing — become casualties when Congress deifies the President.

This latter point is especially important for Republicans.  They already face significant obstacles in the upcoming midterm elections.  But one of the most potent campaign themes of the 2018 cycle could be related to checks: candidates (mostly Democrats) vowing that if they are elected, they will work to be an effective check on this President and Republicans in Congress who refuse to counter him.

If Republicans in Congress are perceived as mere errand boys for the President, incapable of holding him accountable or publicly disavowing him, they will be handing their opponents a potentially powerful argument for making a change in congressional control.  Republicans who fully embrace the President — and who must commit to all of the embarrassing adulation that embracing him seems to require — may be counting on a strong economy to bolster their chances of re-election.  And running in a Republican primary without praising the President may be especially difficult for many Republicans, depending upon where they are running.  But with every word of praise, they aggrandize the powers of the presidency, perpetuate glorification of the office and of Trump himself, and make themselves increasingly vulnerable to a campaign predicated on the importance of having checks in the system.

When President Obama held office, congressional Republicans used to talk a good game about the separation of powers.  Since President Trump’s inauguration, I cannot recall the last time I heard congressional Republicans as a group advocate for a robust separation of powers.  To be sure, some have resisted the lure of a deified President Trump.  But on the whole, the separation of powers has been relegated to second- or even third-class status, giving way instead to the push for a shared legislative agenda and, worse still, party loyalty for its own sake.  Last week’s display of pathetic obsequiousness was simply the latest, and maybe most emphatic, sign yet that Republicans in Congress have abandoned their constitutional role in favor of worshiping at Trumpism’s altar.

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