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Trump’s Fictional Crises and the Real Threats to American Democracy

The president is using the institutional mechanisms designed to preserve democracy to undermine constitutional order.

Pool/Getty Images

In his first weeks in office, President Donald Trump has actively worked to dismantle the institutional safeguards built into the modern presidency. He has restructured the National Security Council to sideline knowledgeable participants in policy debates who might challenge his impulses and those of his inner circle. He has ignored the interagency process in writing executive orders, leading to political firestorm and bureaucratic chaos. He has attacked the administrative independence of civil servants.

He has done all of this in the name of addressing a supposed condition of “American carnage” of rampant crime, illegal immigration, terrorism, and unemployment. As many have noted, these crises are almost entirely fabricated. In the real world, the crime rate has decreased in recent years; there are fewer undocumented immigrants now than a decade ago; the travel ban does not address an actual terrorist threat; and the nation’s unemployment rate is at historic lows.

As the current administration works feverishly to centralize power and mute dissent under the false pretense of crisis, it is worth recalling how the architects of the modern American state sought to sustain constitutional democracy in the face of a series of real emergencies: From the Great Depression to World War II and the early Cold War.

In the 1930s, the United States faced two of the most acute crises in the country’s history: A devastating economic depression at home and an increasingly menacing threat from fascist Europe. The progressive reformer Charles Merriam warned that “with the closing of every bank in the land, with thirteen millions of unemployed, and with the general prostration of industry and agriculture,” the nation faced “stern realities” that would require “[p]rompt and bold action to prevent complete collapse.”

Observers were uncertain whether the American system, with its checks and balances and its diffusion of sovereign power across multiple levels of government, was up to the task of addressing these crises. Looking across the Atlantic, the political scientist Pendleton Herring pointed to the rising tide of authoritarianism: “We face a world where discipline, organization, and the concentration of authority are placed before freedom for the individual and restraints on government.” In this context, he asked: “Can our government meet the challenge of totalitarianism and remain democratic? Is the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches compatible with the need for authority?”

For some, the answer was that the United States would have to abandon its constitutional system, at least temporarily, to meet the roiling crises of the period. Alfred E. Smith, the former New York governor and Democratic presidential nominee, asked in 1933: “What does a democracy do in a war? It becomes a tyrant, a despot, a real monarch.” Since the depression was “doing more damage at home to our own people than the great war of 1917 and 1918 ever did,” he reasoned, it was similarly necessary to suspend constitutional government in order to combat it. As war approached in the late 1930s, Herbert Emmerich recalled, “Praise for the efficacy of the Fascist dictatorship in Italy was heard in surprisingly high places in the democracies. Some doubts were being expressed as to the ability of the American system to supply the bold dynamic leadership required for solution of the problems of modern government.”

Emmerich was among a group of administrative reformers, now largely forgotten, who worked to formulate a different response. Beginning with the 1937 President’s Committee on Administrative Management, and continuing through the early years of the Cold War, these reformers crafted a number of institutional mechanisms that would enable the executive branch to decisively address emergency situations without undermining the traditions of American democracy.

Two innovations in particular were key to the success of this process of governmental reform. First, an array of new administrative devices increased the president’s capacity to take decisive action without undermining democratic procedures. For instance, the “delegatory statute” gave the executive branch powers normally reserved for Congress to make regulations and issue executive orders while maintaining a check on this power. Second, the Executive Office of the President was established as an apparatus of technical support for the executive that could be reorganized according to changing demands, providing input and guidance on complex problems of economic policy, foreign relations, and military strategy. Over the ensuing years, U.S. presidents have relied extensively on the counsel of advisory bodies based in this office, from the National Resources Planning Board and Bureau of the Budget of the 1930s and 1940s, to the post-war National Security Council and Council of Economic Advisors.

Today the tools invented by these administrative reformers are largely taken for granted, assimilated into the everyday workings of government. But in the mid-twentieth century, they were seen to have monumental significance for the preservation of American democratic institutions. The political scientist Clinton Rossiter argued in 1949 that the reorganization of the executive branch had been a “far more momentous constitutional fact that anyone seems yet to have realized.” It may, he wrote, “have saved the Presidency from paralysis and the Constitution from radical amendment.” The historian Barry Karl proclaimed that the reorganization was the “American alternative to revolution.”

These adjustments in our governmental system have not, of course, prevented terrible abuses of executive power. Witness, for example, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, or the extrajudicial imprisonment and torture of detainees at Guantanamo Bay. But they did allow the U.S. to navigate crises that brought down many of the world’s democratic governments in the first half of the twentieth century. And for seven decades the structure of executive authority established during the depression and the Cold War has enabled the American government to manage economic and military emergencies without resort to dictatorship or martial law.

How disturbing it is, then, to see Trump, within a week of his inauguration, using the very institutional mechanisms that were designed to preserve democracy in actual crises to undermine constitutional order in response to fictional crises. We should be alert to the strategic fabrication of more such crises by this administration. As Evan McMullin has warned, the president will likely endeavor to create a threat as “broad, pervasive, nebulous, and yet urgent as possible.” And unlike the reformers of the mid-twentieth century, Trump’s goal will be to thwart constitutional protections rather than to sustain them.