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The ‘Daily Trump Show’ vs. separation of powers

Just who is in charge of what in the United States?

It is now held inside the mind of each individual an obvious conviction that governments can only be divided into 3 branches: the executive, the legislative and the judicial. Such division of power has become so influential among political analysts and writers in understanding government that it has often been raised to an absolute fact.

In trying to explain the American government, the famous Madison model of ‘the separation of powers’ and ‘checks and balance’ is immediately picked up. The model rests on Madison’s firm belief that dividing authority among three different branches would ultimately create equilibrium and prevent despotism. Scientifically, the model is sound and logical, for it was made perfectly plain in the medieval ages that governments without constraint slip into absolutism.

Yet it is often forgotten that just as politics is a science, it is also an art – it is a form of communication between the governed and the governors. To understand it, and to understand how ‘power’ is actually distributed, one must also use the imagination of an artist and imagine divisions beyond what is said in the literature. This is not to completely reject the former ideas of government, but to instead allow a little imagination enter the realm of politics.

Walter Bagehot, a British journalist and essayist in the 19th century, used that imagination quite well in his famous work “The English Constitution”. He argued that the real division of powers is that between the “dignified” and the “efficient” branches of government. The main task of the dignified branch is to ‘put on a show’ and win the emotions and support of the people, which for him consisted of the monarchy and the parliament during ceremonies. The efficient branch, on the other hand, simply uses the support of the people to run the country. For the British government, this usually consists of the cabinet and government ministers. To quote Bagehot, ‘every constitution must first gain authority, and then use authority’.

Two centuries later, Bagehot’s argument is used up again by scholars such as Michael J. Glennon, to explain the current American government. He starts his book ‘National Security and Double Government’ with the simple question: why does national security policy remain constant even when one President is replaced by another? Despite Obama’s criticism of Bush’s security policies before he took office as President, his administration still proceeded to walk in the same path as their predecessors. He kept the military prison at Guantanamo Bay open, pushed the United States to attack Libya without congressional approval, and also continued Bush’s surveillance policies.

To explain the huge similarities between Bush and Obama’s security policies, Glennon turned to Bagehot’s ‘disguised republic’ or ‘double government’ theory. It is what Plato would also call as the notion of the ‘Noble Lie’. Glennon contends that particularly since Truman’s National Security Act of 1947, which unified the military under a new Secretary of Defense and set up the CIA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, power in the American government began to shift. The new ‘dignified’ institutions consisted of the President, the Congress and the courts, while the ‘efficient’ institution came under the hands of the national security.  The President is there to first set ‘the show’, and then the national security uses that show to achieve its policies.

One observer, Justin Douglas, who was a family friend of the Kennedys, confirmed this, as has previously asserted that, “In reflecting on Jack’s relation to the generals, I slowly realized that the military were so strong in our society that probably no President could stand against them”.

Indeed, the public media’s reports of Obama or ‘Trump’s policies’ or that the President has ‘ordered’ the national security to act nurtures an illusion that the power is invested in his hands, when in fact these kinds of ‘top-down’ decisions are often rare.

In fast, decision-making in the Trump administration has been reported by several accounts to be far more informal than what most think. According to Paul Pillar, Trump has become more and more reliant on his military generals, particularly James Mattis, who regularly discusses national security matters with him at the dinner table. This was also common during the era of Lyndon Johnson, where a handful of the president’s top national security officials gathered over a meal to formulate decisions regarding the Vietnam War. Considering the disastrous consequences of the war, it would not be too far-fetched to see the Trump administration fall in the same hole if it proceeds with the same process.

Of course, on all great subjects, much remains to be said. It would still be too shallow to state that governments always operate in that manner, for the role of the President and other actors relatively depends from case to case. Yet it still sheds light on the extreme complexity and fluidity of government structure, and that in politics, there is perhaps far more performance than real action, and more human emotion than practicality.

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