Almost seven months after Donald Trump entered the presidential race and quickly shot up in the polls, pundits and pollsters are still trying to explain why he is so popular. Why is his alarmist rhetoric on topics from illegal immigration to refugee resettlement resonating with so many people? Why would so many people who describe themselves as “constitutional conservatives” back a man who is neither conservative nor particularly concerned with the Constitution? And so on.
Let me suggest that the way President Obama has handled his newly announced executive actions on gun control goes a long way toward answering those questions. We spend so much time arguing about left vs. right, liberal vs. conservative, that we often overlook the common threads tying Clinton to Bush, Bush to Obama, and Obama to whoever comes next. I see at least three ways Obama’s words and actions add to, rather than detract from, Trump’s bluster.
1. Talking up the power of the executive. If you think Trump would be the closest thing to a dictator that America has suffered, it’s worth considering how the ground is being laid for an all- (or at least more-) powerful executive. Presidents have long sought to increase their authority within the bounds of the Constitution, a natural element of the checks-and-balances rivalry the Founders established for our federal government. But none in recent decades has equaled Obama in so openly declaring his intent to do what by rights should be left to Congress. From time to time, the judiciary has slapped down the president’s actions, such as his brazen attempt to make recess appointments by declaring he, not Congress, was the authority on when Congress was in recess.
Yet, it is worth noting that Obama at least as often is more forceful in his rhetoric about executive powers than in his actions — and that this is equally harmful in one key way. Obama, his advisers and his spokespeople have promoted the idea that the White House can meaningfully increase gun control over the objections and/or inaction of Congress. In the event, I am inclined to agree with Ed Morrissey that this is mostly just “gun control theater,” and Obama is mostly (with a potentially key exception) just promising better enforcement of existing law. But we have seen before, specifically with immigration, that it’s hard to talk a big game and deliver only a modest one. When deferred prosecution for people who came to the United States illegally as children didn’t satisfy activists, Obama went against his earlier stated misgivings and ordered the same for their parents. Like his recess appointments, that second action has been overruled by a federal court. Obama’s stronger rhetoric creates an expectation that he will act more strongly. That expectation, once established, is not easily ignored. And just as Obama once decried George W. Bush’s executive power, only to build upon it once in office, the next president will have to be truly dedicated to rolling back executive overreach not to succumb to the temptation simply to apply it to his/her own political priorities. Enter Trump, who doesn’t even pretend he would govern more modestly. On the contrary, he bills himself as the personal savior of a crumbling nation. That idea about putting more trust and power in a single man — and its resonance — didn’t come from nowhere.
2. Justifying executive action in the name of “safety.” There’s a sordid history of dictators beginning their consolidation of power in the name of an “emergency,” never to relinquish it once the “emergency” has passed — or to acknowledge it has passed. One need not deem Obama a dictator to see the danger in his setting a precedent, with his gun-control measures, of justifying executive overreach in the name of safety. Indeed, these are the opening words from the White House “fact sheet” about the new measures:
“Gun violence has taken a heartbreaking toll on too many communities across the country. Over the past decade in America, more than 100,000 people have been killed as a result of gun violence — and millions more have been the victim of assaults, robberies, and other crimes involving a gun.”
Now, note how an appeal to preventing danger and violence is woven into Trump’s call to halt Muslim immigration:
“According to Pew Research, among others, there is great hatred towards Americans by large segments of the Muslim population. Most recently, a poll from the Center for Security Policy released data showing ‘25% of those polled agreed that violence against Americans here in the United States is justified as a part of the global jihad’ and 51% of those polled, ‘agreed that Muslims in America should have the choice of being governed according to Shariah.’ Shariah authorizes such atrocities as murder against non-believers who won’t convert, beheadings and more unthinkable acts that pose great harm to Americans, especially women.
“Mr. Trump stated, ‘Without looking at the various polling data, it is obvious to anybody the hatred is beyond comprehension. Where this hatred comes from and why we will have to determine. Until we are able to determine and understand this problem and the dangerous threat it poses, our country cannot be the victims of horrendous attacks by people that believe only in Jihad, and have no sense of reason or respect for human life. …'”
Again, the question is not whether Obama’s action is equal to Trump’s proposal; that’s a different argument. The point is that it’s a step in that direction in terms of using public safety — instead of just the usual false sense of “urgency” — to justify constitutionally questionable actions.
3. The sense that justice is politicized. The most dangerous element of Obama’s gun-control measures, as well as his deferred prosecutions for some illegal immigrants, is the apparent guiding principle that law enforcement is legitimately a means of lawmaking. In each case there is a fig leaf, but only a fig leaf, of cover from the argument that the administration is simply making decisions about allocating resources. Instead, this is the executive-branch equivalent of judges’ legislating from the bench, and it’s equally wrong-headed. The administration’s new “clarification” regarding who is “in the business” of dealing firearms requires no new resources; it’s a policy choice that is more properly made by Congress. (It’s also sufficiently vague that its effect, as Morrissey notes, will probably be to drive people better classified as hobbyists to yield the market to larger dealers — one of many examples of regulation favoring larger, more powerful entities.)
If you don’t think Obama’s politicization of immigration-law enforcement is boosting Trump in the eyes of many, you’re deluding yourself. Expect Trump to play on the sense of grievance about this latest action, too: Already, “Second Amendment Rights” is one of only five topics addressed on the “Positions” section of Trump’s campaign website. The real question is, judging by the way Trump has gone further than Obama in the other two ways, whether he’ll also incorporate the legitimacy of politicized law enforcement into his rhetoric. That might be a bridge too far for law-and-order Republicans; but then again, we’ve said that about Trump before, only to watch his support grow.