What is the essence of the Trump presidency? Would it have been better for the nation if Mrs. Clinton had won, and had, as she pledged, continued the policies of the Obama administration? It's still early in Mr. Trump’s term, but we can still easily discern the outline of what Mr. Trump meant by "Make America Great Again."
As I have been arguing here for a few months, what the president and his supporters are doing is returning us to much of the Founders’ original scheme, a scheme that Mr. Obama moved toward abandoning.
This is clear, for example, in foreign relations, when Mr. Obama sought to diminish this country’s influence around the globe, as was suggested by the characterization of Mr. Obama as "leading from behind." Mr. Trump’s Asian trip demonstrated quite clearly that other countries — given our still unparalleled innovative, economic, and military might — seek to have the U.S. continue to act as first among equals in solving international crises, and continue to lay the groundwork for global peace and global markets.
It is true that foreign affairs present the classic arena for the display of executive powers. But, I suspect, when future historians take the measure of the Trump years, they will find that it is in returning us to the classic conception of following the rules laid down, of restoring the rule of law, that will stand as this president’s most significant accomplishment — and his truest chance at greatness.
This will seem paradoxical if not downright whimsical if one accepts the still prevalent media characterization of Mr. Trump as a bumbling, untutored, and incompetent novice. This is the view, of course, still maintained by the defeated Mrs. Clinton and her disappointed allies, who include a disproportionate number of journalists.
Indeed, the very reason for Mr. Trump’s winning the election was the Electoral College — the Founders’ inspired device to make sure that broad support in the states, and not simply selection by the voters of concentrated areas of population, resulted in the selection of a chief executive. Mrs. Clinton and her supporters have found it hard to acquiesce in this aspect of the Constitution, and intriguingly, Mr. Trump has demonstrated fidelity to the original constitutional scheme in other striking ways as well.
The Constitution of 1787 came from an era when it was believed that the task of government was simply to enhance the protection of what was said in the Declaration of Independence to be our inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This was generally understood to include the protection of and to promote the acquisition of property.
For the framers, the protection of private property was the first requisite of a free nation, and indeed, it was property ownership that guaranteed a stake in the preservation of the community and the independence to participate properly in the exercise of the franchise.
These classic notions have, to a great extent, fallen out of favor. It has come to be accepted, in many quarters, especially among the Democrats, that it ought to be the job of government to supervise our endeavors, and redistribute our resources, in a more egalitarian manner.
Thus, President Obama, when he was running for office assured "Joe the Plumber," to his surprise, that it ought to be the job of government to spread the wealth around.
The Obama administration, in its regulatory measures, in its remaking of immigration policy absent the benefit of legislative Acts, in its passage of Obamacare (and in many other ways) sought to create and administer a federal government that would, as one of his campaign ads explained, facilitate life virtually from cradle to grave.
There is something to be said for that view of government, but it is not the one the framers contemplated. It's not one calculated to encourage initiative, innovation, or excellence, and it has generally not led to lasting prosperity in other nations. The Soviet Union, North Korea, and Venezuela can perhaps be taken as instructive examples.
I will explore other instructive contrasts between Mr. Trump’s vision and that of Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama at a later time, but their differences on a proper judiciary, highlighted by the recent approval of a spate of lower court judges and of Neil Gorsuch, are similarly striking.
Mr. Trump, carrying out an election promise, has nominated to the judiciary men and women committed to the separation of powers and federalism (the practice of preserving the prerogatives of the governments closest to the people), in contrast to Mr. Obama’s judges and those Mrs. Clinton would have selected, who understood their task to be changing the law in accordance with a top-down conception of government and currently prevailing progressive politics.
To sum up, Mr. Trump, whatever his flamboyance as a tweeter, is emerging as a traditional constitutional and economic conservative, dedicated to the preservation of the rule of law and to ordered liberty.
Stephen B. Presser is the Raoul Berger Professor of Legal History Emeritus at Northwestern’s Pritzker School of Law, the Legal Affairs Editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, and a contributor to The University Bookman. He graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School, and has taught at Rutgers University, the University of Virginia, and University College, London. He has often testified on constitutional issues before committees of the United States Congress, and is the author of "Recapturing the Constitution: Race, Religion, and Abortion Reconsidered" (Regnery, 1994) and "Law Professsors: Three Centuries of Shaping American Law" (West Academic, 2017). To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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