You have to hand it to Trump. He has chutzpah. When he said he was going to shake things up, he was — for once — as good as his word.
But now he’s in a hurry. He has to do as much damage, wreak as much havoc, create as much chaos as he possibly can. The more he can sabotage, the more he can blame the Biden administration for not being able to function.
He’s doing it all by executive order — a practice he has revolutionized, much to the dismay of those who take constitutional checks and balances seriously.
And to think how much grief Obama took on this very subject. Being a constitutional scholar — not to mention having a working brain — Obama was careful to use executive orders only sparingly, and only when Republican obstruction left him no other choice.
Without an executive order, DACA would never have happened. When it did, Republicans howled like their hair was on fire — “Executive overreach!” — then promptly forgot about it the day Trump ordered the Muslim travel ban.
From then on, it was a squall of executive orders, one worse than the next. Separating kids from their parents. Diverting money from the defense budget to the border wall. Trashing environmental rules. Giving away national park land to energy interests. You all have your favorites, I’m sure.
But with two months left, the squall is becoming a hurricane. As part of Trump’s government vandalization program (GVP), vast numbers of federal employees — civil servants who've been demonized as “the deep state” — are being stripped of their job protections. They’re being reclassified in ways that make them easier to fire, easier to deny their right of appeal, and easier to replace them permanently with political appointments.
In other words, they’re trading career professionals for partisan hacks. People who follow orders. People who look the other way when the boss steers a contract to her buddies. People whose incompetence is a feature, not a bug.
By putting as many agencies as they can under the thumb of their political will, it will no longer be necessary to listen to scientists or economists or environmentalists or any of those other whiners who go on and on about things like global pandemics. If all goes according to plan, the next Republican administration will have its own deep state of ideologically pure drones, ready to do its bidding.
And we’re the ones who pay for it. In missing professionals, people who actually know stuff. In institutional memory that can’t be replaced. In vital services and programs that get undermined, underfunded, and eventually cut. In taxpayer money that gets misappropriated through systemic grift.
Such is the magic of executive orders.
Yes, many of these orders can be countermanded. Trump’s record of defending them in court has been poor at best. But think of the energy, expense, and legal firepower it took to fight them. And even so, a ton of damage was done. Many of the hacks are already in place, and firing them will be difficult.
Of course, the irony here is in the precedents Trump has set. By spreading executive orders around like so much confetti, he has expanded the practice. Which means, in effect, that he’s expanded the power of the presidency for those who succeed him.
Joe Biden for instance. Biden is already promising a slew of executive orders, many aimed at undoing Trump atrocities — reentering the Paris climate deal, rejoining WHO, reinstating DACA, repealing the travel ban — and who would say this isn’t within his rights?
But in the face of Republican obstruction in the Senate, Biden will surely be tempted to push the envelope — to do by decree what he can’t do through legislation.
And Trump has shown him the way. Sure, his orders will be challenged in court, but Trump has also shown us how ponderously slow that is, and how much can be done while we wait.
So it’s not hard to envision a bunch of emergency orders — the same kind of “national emergency” Trump invoked to get money diverted to his wall — but this time, they would be used for real emergencies. Like, say, a pandemic.
Biden could get aggressive about things like student loan forgiveness, eviction moratoriums, and minimum wage for federal workers.
Of course, the constitutional issue hasn’t gone away. Checks and balances have been badly bent by Trump, and it won’t be easy bending them back. And with the Republican senators still determined to gum up the works of legislation, they’ve ceded real power to the executive branch.
Which means the actual governing of the country will, in effect, be done by executive order, with the legislative branch sitting on the sidelines. How is that different from dictatorship?
Which might be the whole point. Republicans have long behaved like they have dictatorship on their minds. But in the meantime, they have to deal with Biden wielding the powers Trump gave him.
Biden didn’t ask for this power, but he’d be crazy not to use it.
Who among us wouldn’t urge him to take on this mantle of de facto dictatorship — as dangerous as that is to democracy — and beat Mitch McConnell senseless with it? Who among us would not trade a little dictatorship for an end to the virus and a reasonably functioning economy?
And that’s the problem. Biden is about to show us that it’s really hard to get that genie back in the bottle. Democrats, being responsible adults, will actually care about the long-term effects of government by executive order. We’ll be conflicted about its every use. We’ll question Biden for using it.
Republicans will have no such qualms. The next time they win the presidency they’ll spit in our faces. And they’ll use executive orders to kill us.