The following is an excerpt from Jack Rasmus’s new book, The Scourge of Neoliberalism: US Economic Policy from Reagan to Trump, released this year by Clarity Press.
The evolution of neoliberal policies since the 1980s is highly correlated with the decline of democracy in America.
Democratic norms, practices, rights and civil liberties, and even institutions of government, have been in atrophy and decay over the period. Moreover, the decline has accelerated in recent decades as neoliberalism became more aggressive in implementing its policy objectives as opposition to it—both domestic and foreign—has intensified. The attack on democracy has risen to a qualitatively new stage in the era of Trump.
Trump’s assault on democratic government
As neoliberalism has become more aggressive under Trump, so too have the attacks on democracy and democratic government.
After three years in power, and with the House of Representatives and much of the mainstream media challenging him after the November 2018 elections, the president is clearly drifting toward usurping the authority and, in some cases, even the functions allocated by the US Constitution to Congress—specifically to the US House of Representatives—toward a view he is above the law and unimpeachable. Toward a view that his presidency is more than a “co-equal” branch of government. Toward a view he can and should govern when necessary by bypassing Congress. Toward a view the Constitution means he can force states to abandon their rights to govern. And toward a view the president can publicly attack, vilify, insult, coerce, and threaten opponents, critics, and whomever he chooses.
That drift includes the expansion of Executive branch rule-making at the expense of Congress and the legislative branch; the broadening use of “national security” declarations by the president to bypass Congressional authority; and the refusal to recognize US House authority as it exercises its Constitutional responsibility to undertake investigations of corruption in the executive branch.
Usurpation of legislative authority
Presidential rule making by Executive Order has been long embedded in the US political system. In the past, however, Executive Orders by presidents have been issued where the president clearly has authority to issue such, or else in cases where Congress has not passed specific legislation—such as Obama’s EOs enabling children born in or brought to the US by non-citizen immigrant parents to have deferment from deportation . EOs have not been typically issued, however, that directly change the intent or the funding authorization of legislation passed by Congress. Not so in the case of Trump.
Passing laws requires their accompanying funding authorization. The monies allocated to a program by Congress are required to be spent on that specific program. However, under the cover of invoking a national emergency, Trump recently unilaterally transferred money allocated by Congress and authorized by the US House for defense spending to fund his border wall. This creates a dangerous precedent. Might Trump now divert authorized spending by Congress to other programs? This is clearly a constitutional issue now. Trump is in effect governing by “national security decree” in direct challenge to Congressional legislative authority. The much heralded “separation of powers” in US government has been undermined to a degree.
Drift toward tyranny
In addition to expanding Executive rule-making at the expense of Congress and the legislative branch, and his refusal to cooperate with Congressional subpoena and investigation rights under the Constitution, worrisome signs keep arising that indicate Trump also considers himself personally “above the law.”
The US political system has always given the president authority to pardon individuals, which is usually undertaken at the end of their term in office. It’s a curious and decidedly un-democratic practice that has been increasingly institutionalized in recent decades under neoliberalism, by both Republican and Democrat presidents and governors. A hallmark of American political ideology proclaims to the public that “no one is above the law.” Yet, some are, as executive pardons have become increasingly commonplace. But these are presidential (and governor) executive pardons of others. No president to date has publicly suggested that he himself might be above the law or has the right to “self pardon.” But Trump has.
The process of usurping legislative authority, to fund his preferred programs at the expense of Congress, may have just begun, but the drift by Trump toward an imperial presidency in domestic legislation may well expand as his confrontation with Congress grows. Second, his suggestion of the right to assume power of self-pardon smacks of Tyranny. These trends—toward usurpation and tyranny—represent decided undemocratic principles that the president feels comfortable with.
Although in early form, the trends suggest a view by Trump that the presidency is an institution “more equal” than the other branches of government. It has long been obvious that, in foreign affairs, the presidency since the 1960s—and even before—has been becoming more “imperial.” Presidents go to war without obtaining a war declaration by Congress, as was clearly intended by the US Constitution—token limits by the 1970s era “war powers act” notwithstanding. The Trump presidency may reflect an extension of this imperial attitude to domestic US politics, i.e the emergence of what might be called the imperial presidency in domestic affairs.
Redefining separation of powers
The Trump presidency’s disregard for Constitutional norms in its relationship with Congress, and in particular the US House of Representatives, has recently become evident as well in Trump’s outright refusal to allow executive branch employees to testify to Congress, subpoenas notwithstanding. This stonewalling is but another example of the Trump presidency’s view that the Executive and Legislative branches are perhaps not “co-equal” under the Constitution. Constitutional authority clearly provides the US House with investigative powers. Trump’s refusal to cooperate with that Congressional authority represents yet another reinterpretation of Constitutional separation of powers.
Reinterpreting the Supremacy Clause
Trump’s offensive against California’s auto emissions rule exemplifies his reinterpretation of the Constitution’s “supremacy clause” and states’ rights. It has long been accepted that state laws cannot provide less than a similar federal law. For example, states cannot pass a minimum wage lower than the federal minimum wage. But they can pass legislation providing more than the federal minimum wage. Trump’s attack on California emissions in effect means the state cannot pass tougher emission standards than the federal standards, which are far less stringent. If that becomes a legal precedent, states logically could not pass legislation that is either less than or greater than the federal requirements. It’s a violation of the federalism principle in the constitution.
Trump’s trade wars represent yet another example of executive powers expansion. The trade wars have generated tens of billions in additional tariff revenues for the executive branch. These funds have been used in part by the president to issue direct subsidies to US farm interests in the amount of $28 billion over the past year. A constitutional argument can be made that payment of subsidies in such amount should be authorized only by legislation raised and authorized by the US House. The Constitution’s intent gave the US House the authority of “power of the purse” to raise and authorize spending of revenues—and not the Executive.
Disregarding democratic norms and practices
Other disturbing examples abound of the Trump presidency disregard for accepted democratic norms and practices.
Never before has a president so blatantly attacked the press and media that criticized him. Or vilified political opponents as “traitors” and “criminals”; or publicly demanded candidates be “arrested and locked up”; or incited popular mobilizations against protestors and his critics; or launched purges within his own bureaucracy (in particular the intelligence agencies) and political party; or declared if Congress were to try to impeach him it would mean a new civil war in the country. These are not just the verbal railings of an aberrant personality who by chance attained the highest office of US government.
These are actions that reflect a calculated and fundamental disregard for even the limited form of democracy that still prevails in US government institutions today. They are views that reflect a belief that Executive powers of the president should and must be expanded—even if at the expense of the authority of legislative branch of government (Congress or states); even if it at the expense of the legitimacy of the press and “fourth estate”; even if it deepens the polarization of US society and incites citizen to citizen violence. Trump believes it is all necessary in order to implement his policies and programs—and this is what we must keep foremost in mind—it’s a neoliberal program.
The key question for assessing the future of neoliberalism is whether Trump is a product of the evolution of neoliberalism and its impact on political institutions and practices—or whether the Trump presidency is an aberration outside that evolution?
Dr. Jack Rasmus is the author of several books on the USA and global economy. He hosts the weekly New York radio show, Alternative Visions, on the Progressive Radio network, and is shadow Federal Reserve Bank chair of the ‘Green Shadow Cabinet’. He also served as an economic advisor to the USA Green Party’s presidential candidate, Jill Stein, in 2016. He writes bi-weekly for Latin America’s teleSUR TV, for Z magazine, Znet, and other print and digital publications.