Who’s in Charge Here?

Published by Gerald Benjamin on

Part I: Donald Trump or the governors?

We Americans carry around a pyramid-shaped organization chart in our heads with a single little box at the top. The person whose name in that top box is “the boss.” When we get mad we threaten to go “all the way to the top.” Whatever the problem, whatever the organization, big or small, we assume that the person whose name is in that box can give us satisfaction. She or he is what George W. Bush called “the decider.” 

Take Donald Trump’s reality television show, “The Apprentice.” Trump’s name was in the box as the head of his company. He decided who survived and who failed, with the latter judgement delivered in two words: “You’re fired!” 

The dominance of a single unaccountable decision maker is a caricature of how most organizations actually work. But time and again it has been evident over the past three and a half years that Donald Trump carried this idea with him into the White House. The most recent manifestation, of course, was his startling assertion that “When somebody’s president of the United States, the authority is total. And that’s the way it’s got to be. It’s total. It’s total. And the governors know that.” 

One person was never meant to be in charge in these United States. Given Donald Trump’s oft demonstrated predisposition to act with little regard for the constitution, it certainly appears that, in making sure that governmental power was dispersed, the founders had a very good idea.

Revolutionaries acting in concert in almost all of the British North American colonies in the 18th century seized sovereignty by force of arms from George III, an absolute monarch. They then adopted state constitutions to create governments accountable to the people. Later, on recommendation of delegates sent by states to a convention in Philadelphia, people of these “united” states ratified another constitution that delegated specified powers to a national government, reserving all others to the states. Moreover, most responsibilities delegated to the national government were not exclusive; the states could (and still do) exercise many of them, too. 

When it comes to our federal system of government in the United States, there is no pyramidic organizational chart. By design, power is decentralized and responsibilities, shared. Structuring a system in which a single person could never be fully in charge was one of several key purposeful defenses against the return of aristocracy and tyrannical rule. 

This non-hierarchical system turns out to be hard to understand for Donald Trump and others who hold onto the idea that there is or ought to be one boss. And admittedly, though our democratic institutions have stably endured for over two centuries, our federal system is far from perfect. It guarantees inefficiency, makes accountability more difficult and requires lots of intergovernmental collaboration to work. 

Collaboration is not Donald Trump’s forte. Backing away after a cascade of incredulous bi-partisan protest from his earlier assertion of total authority, and other claims, like the idea that he had the right to force both chambers of Congress to adjourn, Trump issued guidelines for recovery from the economic shutdown. These were reminiscent of the edicts of the King in St. Exupery’s Le Petite Prince, sure to be followed because those directed were doing them anyway.  But these guidelines allowed the president to create the illusion of authority while belatedly acknowledging that it was up to the governors to determine how and when to phase in “opening the economy back up.” 

Astoundingly, still claiming that he was working supportively with the states, Trump then proceeded to encourage right wing “liberation demonstrations” in specific states to build pressure on (mostly Democratic) governors to “open up,” based not at all upon the measures of progress against the pandemic on the ground. Collaboration, indeed.

One person was never meant to be in charge in these United States. Given Donald Trump’s oft demonstrated predisposition to act with little regard for the constitution, it certainly appears that, in making sure that governmental power was dispersed, the founders had a very good idea. 


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