The New President's New Decree

Every time that Americans experience a transition in presidential administrations there is an expectation--a presumption--that things are going to change. That is obvious when the new "inauguree" has been overwhelmingly elected by the voters, as Roosevelt was in 1932 and as Reagan was in 1980. But it is also true when the margin of victory is narrow, or even disputed, like the ones in 1960 and 2000.

Occasionally, a phrase attaches itself to the changes, which the new leader plans to bring. We think of FDR's "New Deal" or JFK's "New Frontier" as words they used to express their visions and as ways to characterize their transitions to power.

Donald Trump, in his inaugural address, issued what he called a "new decree."

It is worth noting that neither Roosevelt nor Kennedy used the distinctive phrases during their inaugural addresses. It was during their acceptance speeches at their party's conventions that Roosevelt promised Americans a "new deal" and Kennedy imagined America "on the edge of a New Frontier" filled with "unknown opportunities and perils." In the 1930's, the "New Deal" became a shorthand term for a wide array of government initiatives that put people to work on the nation's physical infrastructure, in the arts, and even in conserving the country's natural resources. In the 1960's, the "New Frontier" became an image that launched Americans into space and onto the surface of the moon.

What shall we make of the principle expressed in Trump's "new decree"?

Kennedy, in his 1960 acceptance speech at the party's convention, spoke not only about the "new frontier" at the boundary of "uncharted areas of science and space" but also such other matters as the "unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered problems of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus." His words, like Roosevelt's promise of a "new deal" for the American people, focused on the needs of the nation as a whole and summoned the country to glimpse a bigger vision.

Trump's promise of a "new decree" in his inaugural address is a strange phrase for an American President to use. Presidents do not rule by decree but govern within the balance of powers that the framers of the Constitution described. The populist President Andrew Jackson said in his inaugural address of 1829, "I shall keep steadily in view the limitations as well as the extent of the Executive power trusting thereby to discharge the functions of my office without transcending its authority." Franklin Roosevelt certainly used executive orders to accomplish some parts of his "new deal" with the nation, but mainly he worked with the Congress on legislation that created the WPA, the CCC, and Social Security. Kennedy created the Peace Corps, an Alliance for Progress, and a new NASA by using the instruments of government, not by issuing decrees over its head.

So what shall we make of a President who intends to issue a "new decree" as the principle by which he governs?

There are many ominous signs.

In his acceptance address at the Republican Party convention in July 2016, Trump said, "Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it." During his campaign for the presidency, he said he knew more than the generals about how to defeat ISIS. Since his inauguration he has insisted that between three million and five million votes were cast illegally in the November 2016 election, putting him at odds with all fifty secretaries of state who certified the results of the election as valid and at odds with every serious study of voting patterns that has been conducted. In the first few days of his administration, one of his top advisors said that Trump had "alternate facts" from which he could draw his conclusions. Another senior member of his staff advocated the president's right to disagree with the facts. And administrative decrees have been issued to governmental agencies, such as the National Park Service and the Environmental Protection Agency, telling them that they are forbidden to make the facts of their work publicly known.

Political leaders who rule by decrees are despots. Fascists, Communists, Maoists, and even King Herod, at the time of the birth of Jesus, did it. They issue incontrovertible orders. They control governmental expenditures. And they create secret prisons, as one recommendation from the Trump administration reportedly proposes the CIA should do.

When a President offers a "new deal" or defines a "new frontier," the processes of constitutional government will decide the terms of the deal and the methods for exploring what lies beyond the frontier. When a President rules by a "new decree," the processes of government are supplanted by private whim.

How does a nation deal with a chief executive who seeks to rule by decree?

Unless they are discouraged or disempowered, the other branches of government under the Constitution can act. Only when the Congress adopts a budget can the federal government spend money, and only when the Congress acts can the nation declare war. Or so our Constitution specifies. But, because of political gridlock in Washington, the country has not had a true budget for a few years. And the last time Congress declared war was on December 8, 1941, even though we have expended lives and dollars in wars in Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Iran, Grenada, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria since then.

Another option for the nation to deal with someone who governs by decree is to rely on the professional skills of a free press. But the news media showed themselves to be largely unequal to the task during the 2016 election campaign. They could not decide what to cover or what to question. In the short time since the start of the Trump regime, it has become clear that the President's staff are far more adept at avoiding questions than journalists are at asking them. It is not only that we lack a Murrow to pursue inquiries in depth, it is that our corporate news media lack an appetite for pursuing serious, long-form investigations in depth. The Constitution guarantees freedom of the press, but the press is generally not clear how to use freedom if a "new decree" is the mechanism of governing.

One remaining option for addressing the dangers of "new decree" government is also blessed with First Amendment rights under the Constitution. That is religion.

There is a long, deep tradition within the largest religious constituencies in the nation--Jews, Christians, and Muslims--for prophetic voices that speak truth to power. There have been activists who were not too scared to utter sacred messages even when freedom riders' buses were burned, when voting registrars were kidnapped and killed, when pedestrians walking across bridges were beaten, when Samaritans offered water to undocumented strangers crossing a border in the desert, or when governors blocked the entrances to educational institutions.

In 1933, when the people of Germany found themselves with a new Chancellor, some Christian leaders became alarmed. Fourteen months later, they gathered in the city of Barmen and declared their allegiance to the faith. In the years that followed, some of them fled to other countries, and some stayed home. Dietrich Bonhoeffer had come to the United States in 1939 and could have stayed, but he chose to be a witness to the faith in his native Germany and returned there, regardless of the risk to him. Four years later, he was in prison. Just before the Reich finally fell in 1945, he was executed.

The word "martyr" derives from a Greek word that means "witness." Now that it appears Americans will be governed by someone with a "new decree" as his device for determining the agenda, religious voices must freely rise again and bear witness to the truth that sees beyond the years of any temporal power.