The Executive Order is political weakness at its most powerful. The spectacle of Donald Trump adding his Sharpie-stroke to the catalogue of puissant signatures confirms the United States’ slow but steady drift from a Romanesque republic to Roman-lite empire. Trump was supposed to be better, or at least different.
The wisdom of the day has it that the business of America is business, even when, as in healthcare, that business is thoroughly corporatized. Who better to negotiate through the paralysis of Congress than a commercial deal-maker, a splitter of the difference, a washer of one hand with the other?
The historic drift and the present need were so obvious that in 2014, when Donald Trump was still only a gladiator in the circus of reality television, the villain of The LEGO Movie was President Business. In 2015, the Hamilton musical hymned Alexander Hamilton as a deal-maker who was ‘in the room where it happened’, present both at the founding of the Republic and the making of the legislative sausage.
When Trump offered himself to the voters as applying The Art of the Deal to Washington, DC, he was only following a proven commercial trend. Thomas Carlyle called it ‘Caesarism’, and he liked it. So, in effect, did Hamilton. The Founders wanted the virtues of a republic with the powers of an empire: a state in unnatural suspension between the Rome of Julius Caesar’s early career and the Rome of his later rule. This is why American presidents are perpetually crossing some Rubicon or other, frequently waving the scroll of an Executive Order at the elected representatives.
Somewhere, the shade of Gore Vidal is smirking. In 2016, the patricians offered their own deal-maker in Hillary Clinton, who boasted of her cynicism and offered a two-for-one bargain with her dodgy dealer husband Bill, who could sell snow to the Eskimos and sand to the Arabs, and had set up the Clinton Foundation to handle the deposits. But the plebs knew better, and they could have done worse than electing Trump.
He could have done better, too, and he should have done better when he had the chance. The depravity of the Affordable Care Act, a carve-up between government and business that sent the bill to the sick, drove voters to Trump. He sank Obamacare by Executive Order but failed to replace it. He blamed the Congress, as he now blames it for blocking his immigration reforms and for, perhaps most disgracefully of all, failing to renew its emergency measures for unemployment benefit, company loans and keeping a roof over the head of renters.
Trump is right to blame the Congress for all of this, but the blame is his too. The legislative fiasco is proof of his failure to make a deal — his failure to engage with the mechanisms of government, his failure to look ahead, his failure to force through a negotiation.
Now we are mired in a crisis of healthcare and economy. Trump says he is considering a further Executive Order, to force health insurers to cover pre-existing conditions — a provision that was part of Obamacare. Gilead Sciences has priced a five-day Remdesivir course at $3,120. The President who was elected to break up oligarchy has ended up enriching it. He is propping up the healthcare status quo that he promised to break. He did, though, secure tax reform. Perhaps he wanted it badly enough.
Next, Trump will be assailed by the Ignorami, the barbarian tribe of the teachers’ union led by their vandal queen Randi Weingarten. The unions are already refusing to get back to the urgent work of teaching our children that American is a white racist state and George Floyd a modern Christ, sacrificed for our sins of white supremacy. The unions argue on safety grounds, but everything is political and partisan. Keeping the kids at home means keeping the parents from returning to work. Trump must be denied an economic recovery at all costs.
Two months before an election, Trump will again be forced to bluster and denounce. Again, he will inadvertently strengthen the status quo. His failure will implicitly endorse Joe Biden’s offer, the art of the other deal: the infinite extension of the smooth, corporatist amity between big but idle government and big but idle unions.
If Trump loses in November, his Executive Orders will be undone by Executive Orders. I still expect that he will win — in which case, his Executive Orders will be powerless against the drift and decay of the American system. His political epitaph will be like that of John Keats, and like that of a republic determined to destroy itself: ‘Here lies one whose name was writ on water — in black Sharpie.’