Trump and the Power of the Presidency

The case for limited government is more compelling than ever.


The day before this issue went to press, Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election.

Many people—and not just Democratic partisans—experienced a sinking feeling in their stomachs as Hillary Clinton's widely anticipated victory turned to ash. Faced, suddenly, with the prospect of a political neophyte snagging the awesome power of America's executive office, they became anxious about what he might do with it.

Welcome to the party, guys. Such intestinal-level disquietude is the lot of libertarians the morning after every election.

In their shock, some on the left will act like the United States is merely experiencing a bug—as if the system that normally works so well unexpectedly glitched on November 8.

That is incorrect. The problem isn't that the wrong person won or that our mechanisms for picking winners are rigged or corrupt. The problem is the power itself.

Every time Obama made a recess appointment, or issued an executive order on gender-neutral bathrooms, or limited the comment period on a new regulation, or denied a Freedom of Information Act request, or disregarded state marijuana laws and sent in federal law enforcement, or allowed the IRS to investigate his ideological opponents, he made it easier for President Trump to do the same. He knew what he was doing, and he did it anyway. Likewise, George W. Bush knew what he was doing when he used the post-9/11 Authorization for the Use of Military Force to launch a protracted, decade-long multinational war, began indefinitely housing prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, issued signing statements that waved away restrictions on torture, and much more.

Those who eagerly handed power to Obama, or who cheered when he grabbed it himself, did so because they genuinely believed he would use that power for good, to help those who needed it—women, minorities, the disabled, the poor.

Trump's supporters believe the same thing: that he will slide behind the Resolute desk, pick up the phone, and do his darnedest for the Americans who have lost their jobs to immigrants, their free speech to political correctness, their sense of safety to Islamic terrorists.

Democrats have spent the last eight years paving the road to this particular hell with good intentions. But good intentions aren't what separates Obama from Trump.

The prospect of an eventual handoff should itself be the biggest check on the growth of government: Power grabs, in theory, ought to be less frequent in a world where you can be virtually certain that the bad guys (however you define bad guys) will get their hands on the levers of power, the nuclear codes, and the veto pen in short order. It's bad practice to load a gun you're likely to lose in a wrestling match.

Unlike some of his Republican predecessors, Trump has chosen to dispense with the traditional conservative rhetoric about humility and restraint. His agenda, insofar as it is currently known, involves fully deploying all of the tools at his disposal. But the weird myopia of being in charge seems to afflict people from all parties, and has for a long time.

You won't find much about the president-elect in the pages that follow. Drowning in polling that almost universally missed the mark, this magazine's editors figured on a Clinton victory and therefore less sturm und drang. No matter; Reason's message won't change. But as we hurtle toward a period of Republican control of the White House and the Capitol, advocates for limited government may find ourselves unexpectedly popular with down-and-out Democrats. At least until they win again.