As this is a Constitution Day talk, I have a confession to make. Two years ago I wrote that we had bidden farewell to our old constitution and now had a very different one, one of strong presidentialism. The separation of powers no longer binds an American president, who can make and unmake laws without the consent of Congress, spend trillions of government dollars, and take us to war without the consent of Congress. He is rex quondam, rex futurus—the once and future king.
I had hoped for some reaction from political theorists. Mostly that didn’t much happen. They had taken their theories from The Big Lebowski. “Yeah, well, you know, that’s just like your opinion, man.”
But it wasn’t just opinion. With the most sophisticated of econometric techniques, I had examined 89 presidential regimes and 50 parliamentary countries over a 39-year period, to see how they ranking on measures of political freedom. And what I found was that parliamentary regimes are freer than presidential ones, where freedom is lost to all-powerful presidents
The theorists had had 200 years of history on their side, during which time the separation of powers had served America well. But what I had shown was that America was free in spite of and not because of its constitution.
It was free because it was American. But are we that country anymore? Today we seem to be following other Third World presidential regimes towards an all-powerful presidency.
The grim logic of power resists a separation. That’s the history of Britain, where the Commons became everything, the King and the Lords nothing. It’s the history of almost every unhappy country to which America exported the separation of powers. The interesting question, then, is not why we’ve followed other presidential regimes down the cheerless path of an all-powerful executive. Rather, it’s why it took us so long to get here.
We had a good run, but what happened to the country we left behind? That was a country with Pascal’s God-shaped hole in our hearts. No longer. In secular and celebrity-driven America, it’s an Obama-shaped hole. That was a country where people had reason to hope that their children would fare better than they did. That was a country in which politicians were trusted. That was a country held together by a common adherence to the public good, with generally accepted liberal principles. That was a country that could cut deals, and as deal-making was baked into the Constitution, they could make it work.
And yet we’ve not entirely left that older country, and for the future I see three possibilities. The first I’ll call James I, who managed to rule without parliament from 1611 to 1620, but for a two-month parliament. We’ve seen something like that in recent years, over the mute protests of Congress’ village Hampdens. The second possibility I’ll call Wayne Gretzky, who holds the NHL record for hat tricks. In other words, a sweep of the presidency, Senate and House, as in 2008, and then law-making in overdrive. The third possibility I’ll call Sam Slick, after Thomas Chandler Haliburton’s Yankee peddler, the consummate deal-maker, the kind of person who could reach across the aisle in periods of divided government, as Reagan did with Tip O’Neill and Dan Rostenkowski.
Where does that leave us today, in the choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump? Hillary Clinton is James I, of course. If she had a Republican Congress, that wouldn’t slow her down a bit. Through immigration, electoral rules and educational policies, she’d stack the deck with voters who’d favor presidential rule. And against her ideological enemies—the deplorables—she’d let slip her vicious courtiers and then feel good about it.
What about Trump? Some conservatives say he’d be just as imperious as Hillary. But he’s gone out of his way to deny this, and I believe him. Or at least I don’t entirely disbelieve him. To me, the fellow who wrote The Art of the Deal seems more like Sam Slick than James I. He might even be Wayne Gretzky, if Republicans sweep all three branches.
So we must choose, between the certainty of one-person rule on the one hand, and the possibility of constitutional rule on the other. Those are our choices, our only choices. Pascal told the free-thinker “you must make a choice.” You say that you do not have to make a choice? Then you have already made a choice.
Some people don’t like our choices. They think we deserve better. Do we? Albert Camus wrote about what we deserve. When he wrote L’Étranger in 1942, his Meursault seemed a man devoid of affect, a murderer. But in 1955 Camus called Meursault “the only Christ we deserve.” Some thought this an expression of contempt for Christianity. It wasn’t. Like Pascal, Camus thought that God owed us nothing. The line was a comment not on God but on us, on what “we” deserve. It took nothing away from Christ to say we deserved nothing better than Meursault. That is why I say that, in Trump, we have the only Christ that we deserve.
F.H. Buckley is a law professor at George Mason University. This is taken from a Constitution Day speech at Hillsdale College.