When Israel asked for a king, the prophet Samuel warned them that the pomp and power of kingship would come at a high cost. A king would conscript their sons and daughters into his service, would take the best of their harvest and would make them his slaves. “And in that day,” Samuel predicted, “you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day” (1 Sam. 8:18). We can appreciate their longing for a beneficent king, for someone who has the power and the authority to get things done. We can imagine the Israelites, frustrated with Samuel’s sons as their leaders, asking for something new.
In Donald J. Trump, we have a president who at times acts like a king by exerting power and despising accountability.
God granted Israel a king, and that did, in fact, come at a price. Kings in the ancient Near East enjoyed tremendous power and limited accountability. If you were in the king’s favor, you enjoyed enormous benefits; if you stood in his way, you had few protections from his power. This problem is nowhere more clear in the Old Testament than when David ordered the death of Uriah to cover up his affair with Bathsheba. To satisfy his desires, the king could decide who lived and died, and his generals and advisers obeyed. Fortunately for Israel, God sent the prophet Nathan to confront David and to remind him that his kingship was different from those of surrounding nations. The kingship was not simply an extension of his ego or his desires; it was an office created by God with clear constraints and standards. David’s job, as God’s anointed king, was to fulfill his office and use his power to establish justice for the nation. David repented, yet many Israelite kings after him accepted the power of kingship without responsibility and accountability, and Israel suffered as a result.
A MODERN KING?
As a liberal democracy rather than a theocracy, the United States is a long way from ancient Israel, yet the lessons that Israel learned are still instructive. Like the Israelites, many American voters have lost faith in the government establishment, which is clear from Congress’s miserable approval rating of roughly 20 percent. Voters are tired of cumbersome bureaucratic processes and tools; they are tired of opposition parties thwarting their party’s plans; they are tired of the growing gap between rich and poor. Their anger was palpable during the campaign and remains clear in the media. Many voters seemed to want a populist king rather than a president. They wanted someone to transcend the legal and political conventions of American government on their behalf; someone, indeed, who would destroy convention and the political establishment and, as White House Senior Strategist Steve Bannon has promised, “deconstruct the administrative state.”
In Donald J. Trump, we have such a king, or more accurately, we have a president who at times acts like a king by exerting power and despising accountability, practices that will come at a cost to the nation. This royal prerogative is the common denominator that has run through Trump’s candidacy and presidency, in matters both profound and mundane: his refusal to divest himself of businesses that present clear conflicts of interest; his boast that he can sexually assault women because he is famous; his insistence that the murder rate is the highest it’s been in 47 years, despite all reliable evidence to the contrary; and his caustic and disdainful rants against “fake news,” even while making his own series of demonstrably false claims. Consider his tweets demeaning the “so-called judge” who temporarily enjoined his first immigration order, his outright dismissal of our intelligence agencies with a comparison to Nazi Germany, and his declaration of war on the free press. The overarching narrative is the story of a king who sees himself as the source and measure of both law and truth, rather than its subject. “I alone can fix it,” he proclaims.
Trump believes that being great means winning.
Trump’s efforts to exercise power and minimize accountability take two forms: one is assertive, and the other is defensive. White House adviser Stephen Miller made perhaps the clearest assertive statement when he argued, “the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.” Trump has less directly but frequently asserted that his power is beyond question or scrutiny by members of government and the press. His authority, he argues, is a direct mandate from the American people through what he claims – falsely – was a historic electoral-landslide victory.
The other way that Trump seeks to avoid accountability is more curious, because it involves setting aside his mantle of power rhetorically and arguing that he is just like any other citizen and shouldn’t be held to presidential standards of conduct. For example, President Trump used @POTUS to retweet his personal Twitter account’s complaint against Nordstrom for dropping his daughter’s product line. Thus the president of the United States used the bully pulpit afforded by his office to defend his daughter’s business interests. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer deflected criticism by arguing that the president is like any other father seeking to protect his daughter’s interests.
Both forms of exercising presidential power are unacceptable. They suggest that Trump lacks respect for the weight of his office. He does not differentiate his role as a businessperson or a father from his role as the highest office bearer of the world’s most powerful nation. His willful role confusion is profoundly dangerous, because the confusion of person and office allows Trump to wield his presidential power directly against the very responsibilities and constraints, established by the U.S. Constitution and tradition, that safeguard Americans from the abuse of that power. The president’s supporters cheered on his poorly vetted initial travel ban and his sharp, personal rebuke of the judiciary because they supported the political symbolism of marginalizing Muslims and lawyers. His supporters applauded the use of presidential influence to retain jobs at Carrier in Indiana without apparent consideration of the jobs at Carrier that may be lost if Carrier’s sales suffer because of high costs. They celebrated a president who threw off the shackles of convention to get things done. These supporters are apparently forgetting that many of them had lambasted former President Barack Obama for his exercise of executive power, and they are ignoring the precedent Trump has set that can and will be used by future presidents to violate voters’ interests and possibly their rights. In other words, Trump’s approach to politics isn’t dangerous only because of the ends he achieves; it is dangerous because it wears down some of the protections against the abuse of presidential power that we desperately need.
To be clear, Trump is not blazing some radical new trail. Each president has traveled some distance on it. Indeed, President George W. Bush, in a February interview, warned that power can be addictive for a president. What makes Trump different is both the degree to which he avoids accountability and, more important, the degree to which he does so publicly and unapologetically. Rather than working behind the scenes, he airs his views openly on Twitter, giving Americans and the world a front-row seat to his performance. He will find, of course, that Congress and the judiciary have power and will impose real constraints on his agenda. The judiciary is already challenging him.
As of this writing, Congress has yet to challenge the president in any meaningful sense, because the Republican majority needs the president to advance its own fractured agenda. Certainly, senators have scurried around in the background to mend international relationships damaged by presidential tweets and mixed messages from his administration, they have reiterated their distrust of Russia, and they have periodically expressed disapproval of particularly outlandish presidential claims. But most Republicans have refused to identify and critique Trump’s destructive and willful ignorance of his office, deflecting criticism by saying that people are too fixated on the president’s “unconventional” style rather than on his policies.
A BASIC MISUNDERSTANDING
The first danger of Trump as president, then, is that he misunderstands or ignores the meaning of his office and the appropriate exercise of political power. But there is another, equally troubling issue, which is Mr. Trump’s basic misunderstanding of the nation that his office serves. In other words, he misunderstands the purpose of his office and the ends for which he should exercise power.
I am reminded here of Aldo Leopold’s warning in “The Land Ethic”: “In human history we have learned (I hope) that the conqueror [or unchecked monarch] role is eventually self-defeating. Why? Because it is implicit in such a role that the conqueror knows, ex cathedra, just what makes the community clock tick, and just what and who is valuable, and what and who is worthless, in community life. It always turns out that he knows neither, and this is why his conquests eventually defeat themselves.” Trump has presented himself as a messianic figure who alone can stop crime, boost manufacturing jobs, protect the United States from terrorism and so forth. He has argued that he knows what makes the country tick, and together with Steve Bannon has promised to remake the American political order. His confidence is evident in his insistence that he and his small band of top advisers alone know how to negotiate international trade deals, how to direct individual companies in their hiring and investment practices, how to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and much more.
But what is it that Trump thinks makes the national clock tick? What is it that will “Make America Great Again”? In the most general terms, it seems, Trump believes that being great means winning – and winning “big league.” For far too long, he complains, other people have been winning: terrorists and criminals, Mexico, China, European members of NATO, government regulators. Losing is the national disease, and the president has promised to flip the tables. The Americans he has in mind will become the winners, and other groups can taste the bitterness of defeat for a while. This competitive vision explains why Trump’s cabinet members are primarily billionaire business winners and military officers who have won on the battlefield.
From a Christian perspective, this is a wholly inadequate understanding of the purpose of government and of what makes the nation tick. Biblically and theologically, the creational purpose of government is not to create winners and losers, whether economically or militarily. No, the purpose of government is to do justice. Certainly government is responsible for the contours of the market economy and has a responsibility to encourage a productive economy in which citizens can find employment. Similarly, government is responsible for the national defense and rule of law, and this requires a military force and immigration policy. But the accumulation of wealth by American corporations and individuals and military dominance are not themselves equal to doing justice. A just society requires the pursuit of other ends as well: equal access to due process under the law, protection of common-pool resources such as air and water and civility in our political discourse, for example. Absent the achievement of these goals, Trump will leave a wake of winners and losers across America. Under the trade ideas he has begun to enact, for example, manufacturing companies would win, but import companies would lose. In health care, some people would win coverage, and some people would lose it. In the news, outlets that provide positive coverage of the administration will win, and those that publish damaging information leaks will lose. Again, this redistribution of power is not itself going to lead to justice for the nation, particularly if the Trump administration’s policies increase the burden of pollution and eliminate health care for the poorest Americans. It will not lead to a more just society if the Justice Department eliminates programs that protect voting rights and challenge discriminatory law-enforcement activities.
As a professor of environmental studies, I am particularly concerned about how the nonhuman creation and the human poor will fare when the president of the United States takes such a reductive view of success. Trump has promised sweeping changes and an all-out crusade to eliminate government regulation. He has also promised the greatest military buildup, both conventional and nuclear, in decades. Essentially, he has promised to increase economic and military power and to trample anything that gets in the way. This is his vision of a “great, great America.” And so Trump argues that there is simply too much regulation, too much government, too much scientific research on topics like climate change. In his view, regulation, government and scientists, to name but a few, have been winning for decades, and the economy has been losing. Trump promises to reverse these fortunes in a zero-sum game. Gross domestic product will increase at a rate of 4 percent, he predicts, while regulation, government and science will all decrease dramatically.
If Trump is correct about what makes the economy tick, then wealth will increase, at least for some Americans. But certainly a just government and society require more than wealth and power, and the nation will suffer on a variety of fronts.
Consider the Trump administration’s budget priorities in February, which included slashing the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget by 24 percent and its staff by 20 percent, cutting the Interior Department’s budget by 10 percent, and gutting the State Department’s budget for foreign aid and other tools of diplomacy. The cuts would eliminate EPA programs in areas such as climate change and environmental justice, and they would greatly diminish work done to reduce air and water pollution. When Chris Wallace asked the president in a television interview in December who would protect the environment after drastic cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency, Mr. Trump answered, “We’ll be fine with the environment. We can leave a little bit, but you can’t destroy businesses.” These budget priorities reflect Trump’s own approach to government: increase the exercise of power, in this case economic power, and decrease accountability.
A TROUBLING VIEW FOR CHRISTIANS
For Reformed Christians, this view of government ought to be particularly troubling. Should there be fewer federal regulations, less federal spending and bureaucracy and less research on climate change? Reformed political theology doesn’t answer this question, because it is the wrong question to ask. Instead, with regard to the government’s responsibility, Christians ought to ask, “What does justice require, and what tools are most effective in achieving it?” In addition to quantitative questions about the amount of regulation, Christians ought to ask qualitative questions about the kind and purpose of regulation necessary for a just society. I have no doubt that within the sprawling Code of Federal Regulations, the vast federal bureaucracy, and the wealth of government research science, one can find things that hinder rather than advance justice, and these should be eliminated. But simply requiring agencies to cut two existing rules for every new rule they propose, as Trump directed in an early executive order, will not achieve this end.
Returning to the lessons that the ancient Israelites learned under their kings, those who support Trump’s vision of and approach to governing will likely enjoy a variety of early benefits, particularly vindication of their frustration and decisive action on a number of fronts. But as Samuel warned the Israelites, concentrating power in a king, or in our case a president who does not adequately respect the responsibilities of his office or prioritize justice over wealth and power, will have long-term costs. And when we cry out against the abuse of executive power – Democrats now, Republicans when the tables are turned – no one will be listening.
James R. Skillen teaches geology, geography and environmental studies at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan.