Gridlock, Executive Power, and Trump

November 13th, 2016

I would highly commend an article in the Washington Post titled “Trump’s win exposes Obama’s struggle to speak to the entire nation.” The piece discusses, at a fairly granular level, how President Obama’s policies may have ushered in the election of Donald J. Trump.

One aspect in particular highlights an area I’ve discussed on this blog since its inception: executive power.

Trump’s win raises difficult questions for Obama that he and his top advisers have only just begun to confront: What role, if any, did Obama, his policies and his approach to the presidency play in Trump winning the White House? For more than a decade, Obama has forged a national political identity around the uplifting idea that Americans share a core set of liberal, democratic values that run deeper than the country’s racial, class and ideological divisions. Why did those divisions only seem to deepen over the course of Obama’s two terms in office?

Intentionally or not, some of the president’s actions probably contributed to that rancor. He was insulated by a White House bubble and a staff with fewer ties to those parts of the country that were most alienated. His executive actions, essential to advancing his agenda in an era of gridlock, inflamed an increasingly partisan electorate.

To overcome a gridlocked Congress, he relied heavily on executive orders and actions to spur progress on immigration, climate change and gun control. The surge of high-profile executive moves boosted Obama’s popularity but angered his opponents.

“It was all edicts — fiat government,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for lower immigration levels.

As I’ve argued more times than I can count, there is a cost to taking unilateral executive action. When a bill is enacted through bicameralism and presentment, there was a fair fight. Even though many members (as many as half!) disagreed with it, the legislative process provides the bill with a legitimacy. (Even with the ACA, which was passed through a dubious use of the reconciliation process, many Republicans still feel sleighted!).

But when the President acts alone–especially on an area Congress refused to act on, such as immigration–people feel cheated.

I don’t think President Obama understood the deep level of opposition that stemmed from his executive actions on immigration. I think the Administration vastly overestimated the extent to which Americans shared the same “core set of liberal, democratic values.” The liberal bubble, which has been written about at some length in the past few days, is real. I witness this on a daily basis in my profession. As a matter of course, law professors simply assume that everyone is liberal and thinks alike–for the most part, its true. Also, growing up in New York City, I was never exposed to any meaningful conservative movements–it was simply assumed everyone is a Democrat. But this election illustrated that Trump supporters are not simply a “basket of deplorables,” but Americans of different stripes.

I would also commend Frank Bruni’s column in the Times, where he touches on this cultural bias that pervades liberalism.

Other factors conspired in the party’s debacle. One in particular haunts me. From the presidential race on down, Democrats adopted a strategy of inclusiveness that excluded a hefty share of Americans and consigned many to a “basket of deplorables” who aren’t all deplorable. Some are hurt. Some are confused.

Liberals miss this by being illiberal. They shame not just the racists and sexists who deserve it but all who disagree. A 64-year-old Southern woman not onboard with marriage equality finds herself characterized as a hateful boob. Never mind that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton weren’t themselves onboard just five short years ago.

Political correctness has morphed into a moral purity that may feel exhilarating but isn’t remotely tactical. It’s a handmaiden to smugness and sanctimony, undermining its own goals.

I worry about my and my colleagues’ culpability along these lines. I plan to use greater care in how I talk to and about Americans more culturally conservative than I am. That’s not a surrender of principle or passion. It’s a grown-up acknowledgment that we’re a messy, imperfect species.

I am reminded of Chief Justice Roberts’s dissent in Windsor:

At least without some more convincing evidence that the Act’s principal purpose was to codify malice, and that it furthered no legitimate government interests, I would not tar the political branches with the brush of bigotry.

Certain social movements have been far too quick to label as bigoted anyone who does not support same-sex marriage, or has reservations about bathroom accommodations for transgender students. These are questions that as recently as ten years ago had very clear answers. People’s minds don’t change because certain societal elites and Justice Kennedy say so. Justice Ginsburg’s admonition that Americans were ready for same-sex marriage was always unduly optimistic, and–in hindsight–represents how out of touch RBG really is.

People are complicated, and merely dismissing those you disagree with does little to build a consensus. There are certainly deplorables among the 60 million people who voted for Trump, but they are no the majority, or even a quarter–not even by a longshot.