Summary: Although serious scrutiny of President Trump’s actions is warranted, we must not overly individualize them. Many U.S. Presidents have engaged in similarly dubious and reprehensible acts, made impossible promises, silenced the media, and lied outright in order to achieve their domestic and foreign policy goals. As such, we must examine the very institutions that fail to hold presidents accountable.

American Presidents have a long history of deception, coercion, outright lying, using covert action, defying Congress, or exceeding their constitutional mandates to achieve their domestic and foreign policy goals. However, Congress’ powers to act as a check to the executive branch have increased, particularly since the 1970s when legislation such as the War Powers Resolution of 1973 was passed. This increased Congress’ authority and, consequently, Congressional staffs rose by over 400%. Meanwhile, public trust in the executive branch waned, especially in the Nixon years. As a result, Congress, now more than ever, is in a greater position to examine and formulate policy.

With the advent of the internet, the American public has gained the ability to access a backlog of statements by politicians instantaneously, as well as information from thousands of news outlets. Moreover, in theory, social media increases the ease of gathering numbers to protest or debate. The creation of the Civil Rights movement and of the United Farm Workers are examples of civic action which successfully translated into legislation. This illustrates the historical baseline which the American public has had as a check against the executive. There are, however, far more examples of presidential overreach and acquiescence on the part of Congress and, at times, of the American public.

The Tonkin Resolution of 1964 was passed under Lyndon B. Johnson based on dubious intelligence describing a phantom sea battle between the USS Maddox and a North Vietnamese Torpedo boat. This resolution granted Johnson extensive war powers and significantly expanded the scope of the Vietnam War. Ironically, Johnson spent much of 1964 campaigning on a peace platform. In his speeches, Johnson repeatedly told the American public: “Some others are eager to enlarge the conflict…[However,] we are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing themselves…We don’t want to get…tied down to a land war in Asia.” In short, a vote for Johnson was a vote for the de-escalation of the Vietnam conflict. Nevertheless, just one year after Johnson was elected, 3,500 American troops were sent to Vietnam. The number of troops Johnson sent to Asia would eventually exceed half a million.

The 1964 resolution faced little scrutiny on the part of the legislative branch. The House voted unanimously on the resolution, while only two dissenting votes emerged from the Senate. Johnson went on to say that the resolution, because of the broad scope of the powers it granted the executive, was “like grandmother’s nightshirt. It covers everything”.

More recently, the Iran-Contra Affair represented President Ronald Reagan’s most notable act of deception. In 1982, Reagan sold weapons to Iran in exchange for hard cash and the liberation of American hostages in Tehran. He used the money from the arms sales to fund the anti-government right-wing militias known as the Contras in Nicaragua, thereby advancing his commitment to containment involving neither military intervention nor significant military budget increase. In doing so, however, the administration bypassed Operation Staunch (which banned US arms shipments to Iran) and Congress (by orchestrating a money transfer between Israel and Stanford Technology Group International’s Swiss bank account), while exploiting loopholes in Boland I and II (legislation passed by Congress to restrict funding for the Contras). Furthermore, this contradicted the administration’s message to the American public. Indeed, just days before the deal with Iran, Reagan stated: “the United States gives [Iranian] terrorists no rewards. We make no concessions, we make no deals”.

The way in which the Reagan administration went about gaining support for the Contras was equally dubious. In 1983, Reagan created an institutionalized propaganda department under the National Security Decisions Directive. This organization leaked favorable selective information to news outlets and staged “over 80 publicity stunts to influence public and congressional opinion before upcoming Contra aid votes” (Parry and Korbluh 1988: 9).

Reagan initially denied any knowledge of the affair, though he did eventually admit to violating Boland I and II. Congress absolved him of deliberately lying to the American people, despite evidence to the contrary. The few that received a conviction for their involvement were pardoned by George H.W. Bush.

His son, George W. Bush, also practiced deception through fear-mongering and outright lies to Congress, to the American public, and to foreign governments, when he vastly exaggerated the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, by claiming the Iraqi President had weapons of mass destruction in his possession. Despite thin and unreliable evidence, lack of international support, and skepticism in Congress, Bush was able to obtain congressional approval for the 2002 National Security Strategy by deliberately timing the debate before mid-term elections. The Bush government recognized that “it was risky for members of Congress, especially those who were in tight reelection races, to oppose the administration on an issue of national security” (Hess 2001: 239).

The reasons why these presidents felt they could not openly and honestly pursue their foreign policies vary. However, in each of the aforementioned cases, the presidents initially lacked full congressional support; further, they felt were preserving national security and were driven by a sense of immediacy and necessity. Motivations for such actions include the preservation of international order, the upholding of American credibility, perceived aggression, institutional constraints, and the experience of recent conflicts (Hess 2001). Congress did pass the War Powers Act in 1973 to stop “future Vietnams” (although the conflict there was ongoing), but presidents have since largely ignored this check on their power. Furthermore, instead of challenging the president, Congress has used its extended powers for grandstanding and feigning activism. In times of crisis, Congress had tended to submit to the president for fear of looking weak in the following election.

These actions, as well as increasingly fantastic campaign promises and bleak pictures of domestic and international affairs, have contributed to deep-seated cynicism among the American public. Consider Trump’s grim portrayal of the United States and his simple promises to resolve the issues of the day (e.g., solving U.S. immigration issues with Central America and Mexico by building a wall). His tactics, however, are not without precedent. John F. Kennedy, in his 1960 Presidential campaign, terrified the American public with a fictitious missile gap; Richard Nixon, during his run for President in 1968, used similar fearmongering by speaking of a security gap in order to boost his election bid; and Ronald Reagan, in the 1976 Republican primary, argued, much to the chagrin of Henry Kissinger, “that under President Ford the United States had become ‘Number two’” (Destler et al. 1984: 36).

Furthermore, these presidents ran on a platform of unattainable ideals, facile solutions, and non-specific policy promises rather than pragmatism. I have pointed to several well-known examples in history only to demonstrate the fact that American Presidents have had a tendency to present “the American public with a simple-minded, cost-free view of the world” (Destler et al. 1984: 38). They often disappoint the public early on. This is aptly illustrated by the fact that outsider candidates (CarterReaganClintonBush IIObamaTrump) running as “anti-presidents” have had such success in the past 50 years. Perhaps even more troubling is the fact that some of these presidents, for instance Trump, leave much of their harsh rhetoric or implausible promises without explanation. George W. Bush, in an interview with Mike Wallace, stated: “I do not need to explain why I say things—that’s the interesting thing about being President—maybe someone needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don’t feel like I owe anybody an explanation”. Richard Nixon, for his part, famously argued: “If the president does it that means it’s not illegal” in his infamous 1977 interview with David Frost. What we need to examine are not the lies per se, but their persistence.

How can Americans not be expected to grow disillusioned when a president promises them without any explanation to “Make America Great Again”, asks them to bear all of the burdens of the world, or announces his intention to bring about democracy everywhere?  How can they not lose faith in a Congress which acts purely in a spirit of opposition, contradiction and negativity, which is increasingly accountable to the economic elite, and which uses its powers for phony activism?

When reviewing the history of American foreign policy, it seems that if Trump is to engage in covert acts, use deception, or drive the press into quietude; he would be acting in ways entirely consistent with those of his predecessors. As such, we should not merely write articles showing that Trump is a liar. In fact, we should not fall into the same moralizing trap as politicians by arguing it is always impermissible to lie. There are times when presidents need to use covert action or to bypass the (at times) beleaguering constraints of the executive office (or, more controversially, democracy itself). Rather, we must examine why the United States has a political system which rewards promisers rather than realists and blanket doctrinaires rather than pragmatists who offer nuanced solutions to domestic problems. We must try to find ways by which Congress can hold the executive branch accountable without compromising national security.

The questions we need to be asking ourselves should revolve around the role of realism in politics. For example: why do we (the American public) not have realistic expectations or ideas about what our political leaders do or ought to do? Why must political leaders have dogmatic policy goals which discourage practical compromise in order to get elected? Why do presidents often feel it is necessary to lie in order to realize their goals? Moreover, why does Congress let them get away with untruths? Why does the House use its expanded powers for showboating rather than challenging and checking executive authority? Why are Americans (not just old white men) so cynical about their political institutions? Is it because of the impossible promises in which political leaders must trap themselves to get elected? Does this explain why American voters tend to flock towards change or anti-president candidates? What specific institutions and mechanisms have increased the public’s cynicism and encouraged such political dogmatism?

Some scholars have suggested restructuring the National Security Council, making realistic campaign promises (as lack of public trust can create incentives for deception), increasing community leadership, and extending congressional term limits (Destler et al. 1984: 36). Campaign finance reform, abolishing the Electoral College (the National Popular Vote bill is one such effort), greater public understanding and control of the international monetary system, independent commissions for redistricting, ranked-choice voting (adopted in Maine last year and used in 10 districts), and civic education are solutions which have been proposed to strengthen democratic institutions and accountability.

The legitimacy of American political institutions is waning. Media outlets must, additionally, bring attention to specific institutions and behaviors which undermine American democracy rather than single out Trump. For, in many ways, Trump is a caricature of a failed political system.

Significant numbers of the American public are responding to the outrageousness of Trump and of Congress by protesting. Some states have taken to challenging Trump in increasingly novel ways. Federal courts have recently exercised their judicial sovereignty. This may, however, not be enough, as Supreme Court decisions are only enforceable through the Department of Justice. Only with Congress, the state, and public backing can the courts exercise their power and truly check Trump. Democrats, with their eye on mid-term elections, are carefully choosing their battles with Trump and Republicans. Nevertheless, a few Democrats are consistently undermining the entire system by revealing inconsistencies in Republican, , Executive, and even Democratic positions.

The Republican majority in Congress seems to be going about business as usual, essentially handing Trump a blank check, even for his more ludicrous acts, unrealizable promises, and shocking appointments. In fact, Trump’s fecklessness has provided a distraction from the House’s unprecedented use of The Congressional Review Act to repeal popular Obama-era regulations. In turn, Trump is unlikely to check Congress and has taken to signing congressional legislation deregulating markets out of principle.

With such an undistinguished history in mind, Americans should be protesting against their ruinous and imprudent Congress, not only because they dislike its policies (should that be the case), but for its persistent failure to act as a check or even justify its existence as a counterbalancing parliamentary force. The media, for their part, must analyze Trump and Trumpist beliefs contextually, historically, and in the “nexus of powers and interests” (Geuss 2016: 29) rather than individualizing them and propagating the erroneous idea that the new president is wildly different to his predecessors.

Works Cited

Geuss, Raymond. Reality and Its Dreams Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016. Print.

Hess, Gary R. Presidential Decisions for War Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. Print.

I.M. Destler, Leslie H. Gelb, and Anthony Lake. Our Own Worst Enemy: The Unmaking of American Foreign Policy New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984. Print.

Parry, Robert and Peter Kornbluh, “Iran-Contra’s Untold Story” in Foreign Policy 72, 1988, pp. 3-30.

Featured image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

About The Author

Cameron Espinoza

Education: Selwyn College, University of Cambridge (Master's, International Relations) University of Southern California (Bachelor's, Political Science and English Literature) Research interests: political philosophy, the History of Continental Philosophy, democracy, and American foreign policy.

  • Dennis Kennelly

    It comes down to dumbing it down for the masses. The techniques mentioned are tried and true which is why they continue to be used. The last person to try and give a realistic appraisal was Carter and look what happened to him. I enjoyed Ms. Espinoza’s perspecive and her examples were on point and well explained.

  • John Fontaine

    Very articulate.

  • disqus_LuEdI5QQuJ

    Trying to force ways to see Trump as consistent with past presidencies is a mistake. It is to falsely comfort yourself to suppose Trump isn’t something markedly different.