One way of understanding American history is as a struggle between consequential Presidents who expand liberty and consequential Presidents who expand the state. On this view, most Presidents are frankly not all that important: their decisions are marginal and many are reversed or substantially modified.
If so, Donald Trump’s victory had an important benefit for liberty, even if he himself is no classical liberal, because it prevented Barack Obama from being a consequential President on the statist side of the ledger.
The Argentine writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges was once invited to deliver a lecture at Peru’s most respected university. It was 1965. By then he was elderly and blind, and Peru was under a military dictatorship that was considered “Progressive.” Borges, a classical liberal, was outspoken against the regime’s military authoritarianism.
He was accosted on the campus by student supporters of the regime harshly protesting his presence. When the students’ militant chants finally died down, Borges was asked by one of them: “Mr. Borges, how is it possible for an intelligent person like you to hold unpopular positions that go against the course of history?”
He calmly replied: “Listen, young man, don’t you know that gentlemen only defend causes that are lost?”
In his state of the union and again in his recent interview with Politico, President Obama expressed sorrow that he has not been able to end political animosities. As he put it in the interview, “a singular regret for me is the fact that our body politic has become more polarized, the language, the spirit has become meaner than when I came in.”
Obama blames different factors from the media to gerrymandering for our angry divisions. But Obama himself is in no small measure responsible for polarization. His reliance on executive action, most egregiously his order on immigration, is a primary cause. Unsupported by any express delegation from Congress, this extraordinary act is enormously controversial. It seeks to permit five million people who have come to this country illegally not only to stay but to work.
Legislation on divisive issues is much less likely to lead to polarization than executive fiat.
One of the most revealing cinematic moments of recent memory was at the beginning of the first Austin Powers film.
As those who saw this 1997 comedy recall, Powers, a British secret agent, had been cryogenically frozen in 1967 in case his nemesis, Dr. Evil, should ever return. Fast forward 20 years and Dr. Evil again threatens to take over the world, prompting the British secret service to reanimate our hero. Powers opens his eyes and is introduced to an American officer and also to General Borschevsky. The latter’s presence startles him. “Russian intelligence, are you mad?” he asks. When he’s informed that the Cold War between Russia and the West has ended, he doesn’t miss a beat: “Well! Finally those capitalist pigs will pay for their crimes, eh comrades?” Then he’s told who won. His sheepish comeback, with a weak thumbs up: “Groovy, smashing. Yay capitalism.”
It was parody, but this scene was nonetheless full of meaning.
After seeing so many utilitarian and, to be honest, philistine political comments about higher education and culture—the most recent came from Jeb Bush—it was in a sense refreshing to read President Obama’s exchange with novelist Marilynne Robinson, presented in two parts in the New York Review of Books. (Readers of this site should not neglect Paul Seaton’s very fine reflection on Robinson’s collection of essays that provides the context for her conversation with the President.)
One of the most striking things the President said was this:
Though American politics at the grassroots is polarized and divided, sharp commentators have written thoughtfully about the similarities between the parties as a practical matter. I would add that the similarities extend to their leaders.
While George W. Bush and Barack Obama could not be further apart ideologically, their attitudes toward governing suffer from the same flaw. Bush said he was “the Decider,” to which Obama rejoined: “I won.” Both ran roughshod over public opinion.
Barack Obama and Donald Trump have been justly attacked for their recent inflammatory rhetoric. But these criticisms miss the mark unless they are seen in the context of how, in their ways, the Democratic President and leading Republican contender reflect the presidential politics of their respective parties.
Like movie sequels, second editions of notable scholarly books often disappoint. Phillip J. Cooper’s By Order of the President: The Use and Abuse of Executive Direct Action (University Press of Kansas, second edition) is an exception.
In February of 1945, Franklin D. Roosevelt traveled to Yalta and ceded geopolitical control of Eastern Europe to Joseph Stalin. At the conference, Winston Churchill could do nothing. In return for the Soviet dictator’s promise of allowing Poland to hold elections to set its postwar political course (and a vague assurance of democratic elections in the other countries occupied by Red Army troops at the close of World War II), the allies let him keep possession of the eastern part of Poland. This was, in effect, ratification of Stalin’s 1939-1941 territorial gains as the ally of Adolf Hitler.
Churchill had consistently attempted to block Stalin’s expansionism, but with the American President distancing himself from Britain, Stalin had little trouble setting himself up for a postwar empire taking in not only Eastern but parts of Central Europe.
Today, with the “framework of understanding” between the United States and Iran on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Barack Obama has devised his own Yalta.