Seventy years ago, the United States was in a seemingly interminable economic malaise. The Great Depression had affected everyone, particularly the middle class. What’s more, President Herbert Hoover, a Republican, seemed incapable of repairing the damage. As the crisis continued unabated, Hoover’s popularity, understandably, plummeted. With no end in sight, the country turned to a charismatic (though wheelchair-bound) Democrat named Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Today, the United States mired in an extremely slow-growth economy with a monstrously large federal government depressing economic growth. In much the same way that FDR built the modern political order in response to an economic crisis, Donald J. Trump is capable of busting that shabby order apart and returning the country to the constitutional system that FDR abandoned for the sake, as he saw it, of avoiding further economic collapse.
Roosevelt was a Keynesian who believed that in order both to stimulate the economy and employ those who were unemployed, he needed vastly to increase government spending, thereby expanding the size of government exponentially. FDR’s election represented what political scientists call a “regime shift.” During the period from the Civil War until the Hoover Administration (1860-1932), Republicans would generally enjoy majority party status. However, with the Great Depression (and Hoover’s mismanagement of it), FDR was able to come into power and fundamentally transform the politics of America forever. FDR moved the country away from the mostly decentralized, individualistic government toward a highly centralized, collectivist state. In a much similar way, Trump represents another “regime shift” away from the predominant postwar liberalism and toward an entirely new way of running the country.
Trump will be inheriting a lot when he is sworn into office in January of 2017, notably a massively bloated federal government, coupled with a sputtering economy. These two things are linked. The expansive public sector is very expensive. The private sector must pay for these excesses in public spending. Such public spending rarely translates to real economic activity (apart from lining the pockets of lobbyists in Washington, D.C. and their crony capitalist employers), and it greatly drags down the economy.
Trump knows this. He has surrounded himself with people who believe this. He has indicated that he wants to have a sweeping first term full of bold, brash, conservative (you read that right “Never Trumpers”) initiatives. Donald Trump correctly assesses that, in order to revive the economy, he must drastically reduce the size of the federal government through tax cuts and (we hopes) significant spending cuts.
In this, Trump is FDR in reverse. In fact, in many ways, Donald Trump’s entire presidency is about to be a referendum on the tax-and-spend, Big Government legacy of FDR. Just as FDR’s answer to the greatest economic disaster in history was exponentially more government, DJT’s response is significantly less government.
It doesn’t end with economic policy, though.
When FDR assumed office, he rightly surmised that a Second World War was just around the corner. His predecessor, President Hoover, also understood that. However, while FDR was looking for any excuse to intervene on the side of the Allies, Hoover was parroting the preferred isolationist Republican foreign policy orthodoxy of that time (the checklist conservatism of its day).
After the war ended, FDR and his successors implemented a globalist vision for that world order that included such institutions as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, and eventually, the World Trade Organization. FDR and postwar Democrats who succeeded him believed that the best way to avert another world war was through internationalism rather than isolationism.
Donald Trump looks around at the world as it is and perceives that much of the internationalism that became the hallowed orthodoxy of the West is, in fact, causing a great deal of global instability. The U.N. is feckless. Our NATO allies free ride. The Middle East is burning. Lastly, free trade (at least as it has been practiced in many instances) has been responsible for significant job losses in our country. Because of these things, Trump is skeptical of the U.N., opposes unthinking globalization, and wants to seriously reassess our relationship with NATO.
The Democratic Party loves big government solutions. This is not only true in domestic policy, but also in international relations. Thus, the Left (and most establishment Republicans) love the international institutions that FDR ushered in. Trump is categorically opposed to relying on these solutions. Rather than depend on international institutions that routinely take advantage of the United States, or that seek greater antagonism with nuclear powers such as Russia, Trump wants to assert greater American control over the process. This explains why he favors better, direct relations with serious American competitors, such as Russia and China. It is not because he is a Russian sleeper agent, as the Left suggested during the campaign (and that the FBI later proved was a false accusation). It’s not that Trump is clueless on foreign policy, as his opponents suggested throughout the campaign. Rather, he recognizes that the current order—the current Leftist regime in America—is harming us.
Trump’s foreign policy, then, would be one of greater bilateral relations with powers like Russia and China. It would be one that, I believe, reinvigorates America’s ailing diplomatic functions. It would also be one that seeks to move foreign affairs out of the stuffy moralism of the United Nations and into the cold realism of traditional power politics. In other words, Trump is in the process of undoing the FDR-created foreign policy framework. He is, therefore, returning America back to the concepts and beliefs that governed it prior to FDR’s reign.
FDR, according to Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., was an “imperial president.” The peremptory fashion in which FDR ran the country had rarely been experienced before his presidency (although other presidents, notably Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, certainly showcased such traits at various points in their presidencies).
At different times, FDR steamrolled Congress to get his pet projects passed. When Congress was no longer an obstacle, he threatened to pack the Supreme Court with friendly justices, after the Supreme Court challenged key components of the New Deal that they (rightly) viewed as unconstitutional. The mere threat of packing the court with an additional cohort of justices who would have been favorable to FDR’s policies seemed to put the Supreme Court in a more compliant mood. There was also the constant use of executive orders to implement FDR’s sweeping big government policies, bypassing the constitutional checks-and-balances entirely.
Trump is coming into power with a majority Republican Congress. This should only encourage him to act in a far more constitutional manner than any of his predecessors have. He is going to get to pick Antonin Scalia’s replacement on the Supreme Court (and possibly Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s replacement as well). Trump is embracing a wholeheartedly Conservative governing agenda—which includes undoing his predecessor’s annoying style of governing with a “pen and phone.” In fact, the entire Trump political movement has been a reaction to what most people perceived as the lawlessness of the Obama Administration. Trump ran as the “law and order” candidate. He spoke often about his disgust with the systemic corruption of the political system. Trump says he would “drain the swamp“ by enacting serious lobbying reform.
The entire concept of an imperial presidency is a relatively modern phenomenon. FDR was the biggest practitioner of it. Successive Democrats followed suit. Some Republicans, particularly the likes of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush, engaged in their own expansions of the federal government that would have made any leftist proud. However, Donald Trump is something different. Neither Nixon nor George W. Bush came into power when the economy was this bad. The American people were nowhere near as fed up with the business-as-usual antics of Washington, D.C. as they are now. Trump is the American people’s avenger: he is coming to right a wrong system.
Trumping the System
The situation that Donald Trump will enter is almost as dire as it was when FDR came to power. Just like FDR, Trump is going to have to implement sweeping policies. But there are crucial differences, too. When FDR assumed office, the economy was in free fall and the government was tiny (compared to today’s standards). When FDR left office, he had effectively created a welfare state with a massive military (without actually repairing the economy, as Burton W. Folson, Jr. detailed in New Deal or Raw Deal?). His successors in both parties kept expanding that government until, today, it accounts for 34 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.
Trump is coming into power in a low-growth economy with a bloated leviathan for a federal government. Just like FDR, Trump is going to have to fundamentally alter the status quo of Washington, D.C. in a way that none of his postwar predecessors could do. The old assumptions no longer hold. The election of Donald Trump, then, was not just another typical eight-year shift from Democrat to Republican. Oh no! It was a revolutionary regime shift away from centralized Leftism back toward decentralized liberty.
In that way, we should count our blessings that Trump is like FDR.