In 2016, the election of Donald Trump heralded in an age of unprecedented domestic anxiety. The electorate was bitterly divided between the perception of the president as the downfall and the savior of our modern American democracy. Voters were electrified both negatively and positively by the electoral college, the president, and the plans he had laid out for his tenure. One New York Times opinion piece posed Donald Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign as the greatest threat to American democracy since World War II, citing his character, his abuse of power, and his neglect of contemporary political norms. Nonetheless, the question must be asked: is Donald Trump really such a drastic political outlier?
Since Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency in 1904, the role of the executive branch has been one of inconsistency in its relationship with Congress and its place in decision-making. Executive power was broadened greatly under Roosevelt, but since then this topic has been one of notable debate both in the political science literature and the general societal understanding.
The President in Foreign Policy
It has been well documented in the political science literature that the executive branch has expanded in influence drastically in foreign policy. Theoretically, Congress’ role in foreign policy is that of oversight. The goal of this congressional involvement in foreign policy is to ensure the executive’s faithful execution of laws written and the vetting of military and diplomatic activities with the goal of punishing pernicious action and preventing the occurrences and recurrences of catastrophes. However, following 9/11, Congress has failed to adequately question, challenge, and even prevent executive action in foreign policy. Ornstein and Mann document lapses in the Department of Homeland Security, oversight over Iraq, and the classification of documents, to which Congress does not have access. 
In the field of International Trade, we can see, from the foundation of the Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act of 1934 (RTAA), the depth of the exclusive role of the executive in trade. Hiscox documents the fundamental reason for the establishment of the RTAA, citing the shift of authority from Congress to the president. This action was not necessarily concerning at the time, as the elimination of efficiencies in trade policy formation acted in kind with the theoretical role of the president as the representative of the nation.  What we see today as manifest from this initial input is trade policy determined by the executive branch, with congressional input at the discretion of that president. If we look to Obama-era trade policy, we can see this dynamic. In just 2015, The Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities and Accountability Act of 2015 was signed into law, with the Trade Promotion Authority allowing the president to freely enter into trade agreements with only Congressional consultation, given the agreement meets a number of statutory requirements. Under this agreement, the Obama administration was able to enter into the Trans-Pacific Partnership with congressional approval.
What we can gleam from American history on trade is that the executive branch has garnered broad control over trade policy and trade agreements; however, despite the relatively consistent use of unilateral executive action in trade, congressional approval of agreements has broadly remained positive, allowing for trade policy formation without the logrolling and inefficiencies of Congress.
Donald Trump in Trade
Following his election in 2016, Donald Trump has waged an all-out war against China through tariffs. Tariffs rose over the Trump administration from around 3.6% to about 4.3%, with CBO projections positing a drastic and negative economic fallout. Donald Trump was at once vilified and deified for these actions, with some denouncing him as president and others praising him for his foresight and proactivity.
Donald Trump pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership in 2017, as promised to the electorate, and many viewed this action, alongside rising duty rates, as baffling for a president claiming to be so in touch with the American economy. Polling data, moreover, only further confounds these underlying dynamics.
What we can garner from polling data is that Americans don’t like China, but they love trade. Nonetheless, as is well documented in the literature on the politics and economics of trade, presidents are always incentivized to favor higher tariff rates for reelection.  This is a result of protectionism producing higher domestic wages and fewer jobs outsourced. The result is that, facing this certain congressional roadblock through competing needs, the executive overreach of authority in trade produced an outcome that pleased Trump’s base without the pushback and inefficiency of Congress.
Nonetheless, this event is one of the few in American history in which a president unilaterally rolled out, via executive order, sweeping tariffs on numerous key goods. Here, we can see Trump subverting congress in trade policy, as presidents often do. This can be seen as an example of executive overreach, with the expansion of executive authority beyond that of Congress, despite its stated role.
Trump’s Democratic Erosion
To clarify what I mean by democratic erosion, I will look to Borneo’s approach to the rise of Executive Aggrandizement. Borneo relates the decline of classic and executive coups, replaced by the rise of Executive Aggrandizement, in which executives “weaken checks on executive power one by one”. 
Typical checks on activity like this, namely the public and congress, have been proven to be largely ineffective. Graham and Svolik reach the conclusion that the public broadly cares very little about the preservation of democratic qualities in voting, instead looking to partisanship and personal gain.  Ornstein and Mann, as previously referenced, point to Congress’ decreasing role in foreign policy and oversight.  The result is that, so long as the Republican base is satisfied with outcomes, via employment and wages, the executive overreach demonstrated here is acceptable to the electorate.
What we can see in the executive relationship with congress in foreign policy is the breakdown of “horizontal accountability”, per Ginsburg and Huq, with Congress gradually relieving itself of its position as a check on the executive branch.  This may be a function of numerous factors, including popular electoral reactions, congressional reactivity, and media coverage, but the startling result is this trend of the lack of Congressional oversight.
It is not uncommon to hear claims of fascism and autocracy surrounding Donald Trump, but what we are seeing today seems to be just the most recent manifestation of the role of the executive and its interaction with congress in foreign policy and trade. The long history of the congressional surrender of power in this sphere is certainly alarming, and Donald Trump’s recent reversal of the trend of trade liberalization is as well, but, at least in the sphere of foreign policy, Donald Trump is just the next manifestation of a long history of American democratic erosion.
The trend of the congressional surrender of power in foreign policy to the executive in the United States is alarming. We can see a long trend of the loss of controls on the executive from the establishment of the RTAA to the 2015 legislation awarding the president freedom over trade policy, and Donald Trump, although certainly contributing to this erosion of democratic values, is just the next manifestation of this executive aggrandizement. Congress, in the international sphere, has broadly relinquished its control over foreign policy and trade formation, and Donald Trump’s exploitation of that trend seems to be just the next step of this shifting dynamic. Over time, the stated institutional checks of American democracy have been gradually worn down, and, while the causes may be up to debate, the result is clear: the executive branch has vastly expanded its influence over foreign policy and trade.
The question of why it is that recent events have elicited such heated responses is interesting as well. Perhaps this is a result of the realist foreign policy approach under the Trump administration, but we must recognize the extent to which Congress is losing its grip over foreign policy, and what will go next.
Citations: Ornstein, N., & Mann, T. (2006). When Congress Checks Out. Foreign Affairs,85(6), 67-82  Kriner, Douglas L., and Andrew Reeves. The Particularistic President: Executive Branch Politics and Political Inequality  Jensen, J. Bradford, Dennis P. Quinn, and Stephen Weymouth. “Winners and Losers in International Trade: The Effects on US Presidential Voting.” International Organization 71, no. 3 (2017): 423–57.  Bermeo, Nancy. “On Democratic Backsliding.” Journal of Democracy, vol. 27, no. 1, 2016, pp. 5–19.  Graham, Matthew, and Milan Svolik. “Democracy in America? Partisanship, Polarization, and the Robustness of Support for Democracy in the United States.” American Political Science Review 114, no. 2 (2020): 392–409  Huq, Aziz Z. and Ginsburg, Tom, How to Lose a Constitutional Democracy (January 18, 2017). UCLA Law Review, Vol. 65, Forthcoming, U of Chicago, Public Law Working Paper No. 642
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