A President in Full
The New York Times frets that Donald Trump might exercise the authority vested in the executive branch.
There is an ideal version of the federal agencies that make up the American executive branch, even for a conservative. We would not call them the administrative state—a pejorative for the pride of positivism, which sees individual human beings as only pieces of humanity, mere components for manipulation. Rather, they would make up a mediating state, of sorts. For it is true that, in an era as complex as our own, the normal American needs many champions of great awareness, ability, and precision to stand between life at the human scale and the forces that shape our world.
These civil servants would protect Americans’ liberties and the American Main Street from historical-political conditions, rather than protect progress from pesky human freedom. They would take on awesome power and responsibility—that is, exercise authority—on behalf of a president and the people who elected him. Indeed, our technological and bureaucratic age offers the human person as full play for spiritual maturity as any ages past. For few are they who possess the strength of character and inner freedom to withstand anonymizing structures of power, structures that ever tend to more total systems of control; few are they who would choose to be Tolkien’s Gandalf rather than Huxley’s Mustapha Mond. Certainly not the staff of the federal agencies we have.
The New York Times is right: Donald Trump and his allies plan to increase presidential power in 2025. Not because, as too many liberals on Twitter seem to think, he would be a dictator. Instead, because there is disorder and imbalance in the power, authority, and responsibility of the American presidency and his executive branch, which can only be rectified by increasing the president’s power.
Jonathan Swan, Charlie Savage, and Maggie Haberman report—if it can really be called reporting when all has been discussed openly for almost half a decade—that team Trump 2024 would like the president, as the constitutional executive, to be in charge of the executive branch. They have people on the record like John McEntee, who was head of White House personnel (and, disclaimer of sorts, who interviewed me when I joined the U.S. EPA as White House liaison), and Russ Vought, who was head of Trump’s Office of Management and Budget, explaining that if Congress is going to cede authority and power to the executive branch, then the elected president is certainly the one to pick it up. Congress can check and balance the president by passing laws and budgets, instead of hoping bureaucrats will manage everything. The president should be able to hire and fire the people who work for him. Big news.
The breathless tone of the Times piece comes, fundamentally, from basic “orange man bad” Trump derangement syndrome and a liberal friend-enemy distinction; the administrative state is, after all, the judiciary’s chief partner in bending the arc of history towards progress, if not justice. Intellectually, however, the teacher’s-pet hyperventilating springs from a conflation of power and authority, and an ignorance of responsibility. As the reporters write, the Trump team hopes “to alter the balance of power by increasing the president’s authority over every part of the federal government that now operates, by either law or tradition, with any measure of independence from political interference by the White House.”
But the president, as head of the executive branch, already has the authority to run the executive branch, and is supposed to be responsible for its workings. What he needs to do so is the power.
This confusion in concepts shows us why there is no version of the administrative state as we know it that works for human ends. If the president cannot unite in himself the personal authority and power required to fulfill his responsibilities on behalf of the people, then how can any particular bureaucrat maintain any sense of responsibility for her own power and authority? If she does not answer to the American president then she does not answer to the American people. The system shows itself to be a faceless, dehumanizing machine all the way up and all the way down.
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In a terrible sense, this simply reflects the reality of the social world we live in. While altering our experience and self-understanding in important ways—ways that present opportunities as well as hazards—the digital era continues the perpetuation of what has been called mass man. The mass is caught up in technological disruption and subject to systems of rationalization. The march of progress, in scientific or legal terms, has produced a general attitude of passivity to power set apart from apparent human agency. As a result, the mass man accepts claims that powers like a national lockdown emerge from scientific, technical, or political necessity, independently of personal responsibility. Our technocratic elite have simply internalized this dynamic better than the rest, only a few exploiting it consciously for their own ends. As the Catholic theologian Romano Guardini put it, they “are not merely conscious of the influence of the machine; they deliberately imitate it, building its standards and rhythms into their own ethos.”
What Trump and members of his team are proposing is to restore real responsibility to the presidency. This is the opposite of modern dictatorship, which subsumes a human personality into an avatar of the popular will and of the state. Far from a proposal to make President Donald Trump a law unto himself, these policy plans are an attempt to restore human accountability to an executive branch that has too long exercised power with neither responsibility nor authority, but only license—and in the only way we have in a representative constitutional republic, through political elections. Populism is the last attempt of the many to defend themselves from the irresponsible and unaccountable rule of the few; MAGA is the gasoline that some Americans are throwing on a machine they know will swallow them up.
The promise of Trump has always been that he is too much a human being, too fully himself, with all his vices and virtues, to be a mere functionary, surrendering his personality to a disempowered office. He might fail to drain the swamp, but he would never join or be allowed to join it. And now the New York Times is spreading his chief 2024 campaign message for him: Donald Trump means to match the greatness of executive responsibility with sufficient executive power—to become a president in full.