Separated by 145 years are two like-minded, lawless pronouncements on the lawful powers of the U.S. presidency -- both issued, unsurprisingly, by lawless presidents themselves.
When asked, three years subsequent to his fall, if the nation's chief executive can act illegally in whatever he considers the nation's best interests, Richard Nixon replied that "When the president does it, that means it is not illegal." Scores earlier, Andrew Jackson is reputed to have said (the actual wording is probably apocryphal; the sentiment real) in response to an unfavorable Supreme Court ruling: "[The Chief Justice] has made his decision, now let him enforce it."
Nixon had lost political protection for his past crimes, and so he went down. Jackson retained his, and so, with impunity, he prevailed. The nation's highest, co-equal check on presidential power -- the U.S. Supreme Court -- was rendered impotent in the face of despotic audacity. (Jackson's 1832 realpolitik foreshadowed Stalin's keen appreciation of material executive power over conceptual authority: "How many divisions does the pope have?" Indeed, how many divisions did Justice Marshall have?)
As a traumatized America confronts the specter of yet another lawless president, in President Jackson's authoritarian arrogance lies the empirical rub. A vital institutional check on executive power was peremptorily and triumphantly dismissed for what, in raw actuality, it was: unenforceable words on paper. And President-elect Trump has evinced numerous signals of a Jacksonian redux -- or, rather, reduxes. The Supreme Court be damned, should he so choose. Conversely, he may not even be troubled by such institutional pushback, since he'll soon be appointing sympathetic members of the very Court charged with co-branches oversight.
That leaves the incoming Republican Congress as President Trump's chief institutional rein, which, given the GOP's contemporary pursuit of unfettered power over any first principles, almost certainly means no rein at all. Trump is likely to enjoy the political protection that Nixon lost.
What, then, presents itself as a capable check on Trump's seemingly determined authoritarianism? From what I have read, despairing commentators are offering nothing but platitudes, drenched in traditional American values marked for fierce extermination by the 45th president. This morning, Michael Gerson's urgings are representative of conscientious observers' helplessness. To wit, "It will now fall to citizens and institutions to ... defend the legislature and judiciary from any encroachment" -- by an allied encroacher? -- and to "expand and defend the institutions — from think tanks to civil liberty organizations — that make the case for a politics that honors human dignity." Similarly, Gerson's Post colleague, Fred Hiatt, has counseled that the "courts, the media, state governments and, above all, the citizenry ... all have roles to play."
They do. And yet, the nation's primary and potentially antagonistic role-players within the American political system -- the legislature and judiciary -- seem destined for the Trump-cooperating sidelines. The nation's citizens? Its media? Its think tanks and civil liberties organizations? How many armed divisions do they possess? They will be free (for a while, anyway) to issue condemnatory judgments on Trump's assorted authoritarian acts, but utterly unenforceable those judgments shall be.
With some haste I should add that I don't mean to be critical of the above, virtuous voices of vigilance, for my alternative counsel is just as pitiably barren. Our hearts and minds may not follow, but do let us face the arresting truth: President Trump will have us by the balls.