Opinion: If Democrats dislike Trump’s authoritarianism, why were the debates so hot for executive action?

Democratic presidential candidates debate in Ohio
Democrats decry President Trump’s authoritarian instincts, yet many of them are willing to resort to executive actions to get around Congress — just like Trump. One example: Sen. Kamala Harris’ pledges on gun control.
(AFP via Getty Images)

For the nearly 1,000 days of his presidency, Donald Trump has shown the nation the dangerous repercussions that can arise when a democratic society succumbs to cynicism about its own government. It’s not pretty.

Undermining norms. Installing anti-government figures to go at the bureaucratic framework like ravenous termites. Slashing tax revenues to “starve the beast,” which lays the groundwork for budget cuts for programs that are suddenly unaffordable.

The federal government, to be sure, does have its problems. And the power politics of Washington is an appealing punching bag for those willing to see dark forces arraying against the little guy. My colleague Jon Healey addressed that issue in a blog post earlier today spinning off Tuesday night’s marathon debate among an even dozen Democrats.


But as problematic as government can be, it is not the enemy. To warp the famous Pogo line, the government is us, and it will be as good or as bad as we decide to make it.

And in electing Trump, we decided to make it very bad.

Should the federal government be smaller? That’s a legitimate and maybe even necessary discussion to have. But blowing up federal agencies in an anti-regulatory frenzy is not a workable solution. Government by its nature yaws as policies shift under incoming administrations. Republicans tend to favor less regulation; Democrats tend to favor more.

And we have regulatory rules to mitigate the excessive swings — air deemed too polluted under one administration really shouldn’t suddenly become clean enough under the new administration. Decisions need to be based on research, and reason, even with changes in philosophies in the White House.

Until Trump. If Rudy Giuliani was a hand grenade tossed into diplomatic efforts with Ukraine, as John Bolton framed it, then Trump is a demolitions guy stacking dynamite in the government basement.

Can ousting Trump recalibrate the democracy? Probably not. He’s contagious on some levels.

On the campaign trail, several Democrats have invoked using executive actions to achieve a wide range of reforms that Congress has refused to address. Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris have all vowed to use executive power to achieve policy goals they might not be able to get through Congress, a strategy most Democrats have decried when the executive doing the ordering was Trump.

So in some ways Trump’s excesses have created a norm for the use of power by a president, though in truth that is part of an evolution that predates the Nixon administration — the embrace of the “imperial presidency,” in which, as historian Arthur Schlesinger argued, “presidents made sweeping claims of inherent power, neglected the collection of consent, withheld information ad libitum and went to war against sovereign states.”

Do we really want a president to exercise that kind of power? Do we want a president to do, by decree, that which elected representatives have declined — or failed — to do legislatively?


This is about more than finding a way to ban combat-style weapons, something I think is vital to the public interest and that has been the focus of some Democratic candidates’ threats to use the power of the office as the means to an end.

But that leaves us right where we are — with a system of governance by a handful of people, not we the people, which accelerates the feedback loop that feeds cynicism among the electorate.

As I’ve argued before, a democracy is only as strong as the people’s faith in it. And Democrats who reject Trump’s authoritarian instincts would be wise to make sure that in their zeal to oust him, they don’t become him.