Republicans won the presidency on November 8 because Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in states with more than 270 electoral votes between them; but Trump will be president instead of anyone else first and foremost because Republicans nominated him, despite widespread awareness within the party of his aberrance and unfitness for the office.
From the moment Trump vaulted to the top of presidential primary polls more than a year ago, anti-Trump conservatives have sought explanations outside of conservative political culture for his appeal to Republican voters.
The most popular of these is the “cried wolf” theory, under which Trump won the GOP nomination not because of widespread racism and sexism in white America, or widespread indifference to racism and sexism in white America, but because liberals had inured Republican voters to allegations of racism and sexism through overuse.
Beyond its substantive shortcomings, the “cried wolf” critique infantilizes Trump supporters by suggesting that liberal attacks on Mitt Romney and other GOP standard-bearers made conservative voters incapable of detecting racism and sexism on their own.
After Trump won the nomination, many of the same anti-Trump conservatives—anticipating he’d bring the same norm-shattering behavior that won him the nomination into the White House—likewise sought explanations outside of conservative political culture for that norm-shattering.
What they came up with is, essentially, #ThanksObama. Trump may be an unrepentant illiberal authoritarian, these critics admit, but he would be well contained within the presidency were it not for President Barack Obama’s own monomania and precedent-setting expansion of executive power.
The most recent entry in this genre belongs to National Review editor Charles C.W. Cooke (who also subscribes to the “cried wolf” theory). Like others that preceded it, his essay published Tuesday, “Democrats Finally Wake Up to the Dangers of Illiberalism,” suffers from a familiar category error. Obama really did expand executive power in some ways. When President Trump employs those powers, and liberals complain, it will be entirely appropriate for conservatives to cite precedent. But Obama did not set a precedent for authoritarian rule or kleptocracy or nepotism or any of the horrors Trump is promising to unleash. And the distinction between these categories is incredibly vital.
What made an alliance between liberals and anti-Trump conservatives viable during the campaign was a recognition that many of Trump’s threats to liberalism weren’t continuous but discrete. In some ways Trump was a garden variety Republican, only ruder. But in others—in his casual disregard for separation of powers, his affinity for oppression per se—he represented a departure not in degree, but in kind, from major party presidential candidates who preceded him. What made the alliance brittle, however, was a pronounced conservative tendency to collapse these distinctions in order to blame Trump on liberals. In the month since the election, that tendency has only grown stronger. And the danger is that the right’s inability to trace the origins of Trumpism to its own political culture will tempt them to justify Trump’s coming outrages, making it impossible to restore the norms Trump is traducing.
Here is the nub of Cooke’s argument. Obama, he writes, “played with abandon on the slopes that Trump now inherits, and, in so doing, he set precedents that are liable to be abused.” He then offers four examples as evidence—three of which undermine the larger thesis. It’s worth considering them individually.
1: “When, as seems inevitable, President Trump complains publicly that the Supreme Court has declined to rubber-stamp his agenda, his defenders will point to Obama’s dressing down of Justice Alito during the 2011 State of the Union, and to the bully-pulpit speeches he staged on the Court’s steps, as prologue.”
To clean up the history here, Obama never dressed down Samuel Alito, in 2011 or any other year. In his 2010 State of the Union address, Obama criticized the Supreme Court majority’s Citizens United decision, prompting Alito (who was part of that majority) to roll his eyes and mouth the words “not true.” It was a minor breach of decorum for both men. It would be a somewhat more significant breach of decorum for a president to stage a series of bully-pulpit speeches on the steps of the Supreme Court, but to the best of my knowledge, Obama never did this.
The relevant question, though, is whether Trump will be incrementally less deferential to the Supreme Court or radically so. It is a stretch to say Obama set a new precedent by registering disapproval of certain Supreme Court decisions, but the concern Trump raises is whether he will adhere to those decisions at all.
Early signs are very worrying, yet they have no precedent in Obama’s tenure.
2: “When, as he has already in proposing Nigel Farage as the U.K.’s ambassador to the U.S., Trump violates centuries of diplomatic protocol, his cavilers will be reminded that Obama was against Brexit.”
Trump’s cavilers may or may not raise this objection, but if they do it will be no different than the many whataboutist excuses they’ve made for Trump’s offenses since his campaign began. It was probably strategically unwise for Obama to comment on Brexit, but it is not remotely illiberal for a U.S. president to voice his opinion about what he thinks is best for preserving global order. This has nothing to do with Trump suggesting the U.K. recall the British ambassador and replace him with a Trump crony. The Obama administration has well known grievances with Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer, but Obama never publicly suggested Benjamin Netanyahu replace him with a left-wing apparatchik from outside the Likud Party.
3. “If Trump attempts to dominate Congress and to usurp its legislative functions, his acolytes will show videos of Obama’s ‘We can’t wait.’”
We Can’t Wait is the name Obama gave to his administrative agenda in 2011, when Congress gridlocked. Here Cooke is on his strongest ground. Obama at times pushed the boundaries of executive power. This backfired in one famous instance when the Supreme Court ruled 9-0 that he’d exceeded his recess appointment power (which has now been significantly constricted). The concern with Trump, though, isn’t that he will read laws creatively to change U.S. policy, fully aware that courts might reverse him (he enters power, after all, with unified control of government, lessening the need for such creativity). It is that he will be the “Caesar” conservatives tendentiously accused Obama of being, and that nobody in Congress or the Supreme Court with any power will try to stop him.
4. “If Trump undermines due process, we will be reminded of the Democrats’ support for restricting the Second Amendment based on the government’s ‘terror watch’ list, and of the kangaroo courts that have been set up on college campuses across the land.”
Democrats have argued for restricting gun sales to people on government terror-suspect lists, but to precisely zero substantive or political effect. Had Democrats succeeded, and Obama signed a law codifying these proposed restrictions, it would have created real due process violations, but also may well have been struck down by a Supreme Court that Obama defers to. Meanwhile, Obama is an extremely vocal critic of left-wing campus illiberalism.
Obama’s due process record isn’t sterling, but it is broadly consistent with liberal norms, and exceeds his predecessors in many critical respects. Trump’s threats to due process, by contrast, would end-run Congress and the Supreme Court (see above). Trump, to take another example, threatened to jail his general election opponent. Obama never threatened to jail Mitt Romney or John McCain, and he even (mistakenly, in my view) quashed a Justice Department investigation into the Bush administration’s torture regime. Influential conservatives during the Obama era falsely convinced millions of gun owners that he would dispatch federal agents to confiscate their weapons. Had Obama ever proposed such a gun grab on Twitter, the kind of continuum Cooke suggests between Obama and Trump would be real. In reality it is entirely imagined. In the end, Cooke’s argument is not that Obama laid a foundation for Trumpism; it is that Obama should have been more sheepish about his liberalism while he held power.