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John Samples joins us to discuss how the Trump presidency is challenging America’s institutions.

Aaron Ross Powell
Director and Editor
Trevor Burrus
Research Fellow, Constitutional Studies

John Samples directs Cato’s Center for Representative Government, which studies campaign finance regulation, delegation of legislative authority, term limits, and the political culture of limited government and the civic virtues necessary for liberty. He is an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University. Samples is the author of The Struggle to Limit Government: A Modern Political History and The Fallacy of Campaign Finance Reform. Prior to joining Cato, Samples served eight years as director of Georgetown University Press, and before that, as vice president of the Twentieth Century Fund. He has published scholarly articles in Society, History of Political Thought, and Telos. Samples has also been featured in mainstream publications like USA Today, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times. He has appeared on NPR, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC. Samples received his Ph.D. in political science from Rutgers University.

John Samples joins us to discuss how the Trump presidency is challenging America’s institutions. Political institutions in America are designed to stop someone like a populist or a demagogue; someone not fit for presidency. We discuss how America’s institutions have fared thus far, with a president that refuses to follow the norms, and if we should expect more celebrity presidents.

Show notes and Further Readings

Matthew mentions that on Friday, January 12th Trump had just said something disparaging

Ross Douthat, The Tempting of the Media (2017)

The Claremont Institute, The Flight 93 Election (2016)


Aaron Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Aaron Powell.

Matthew Feeney: I’m Matthew Feeney.

Aaron Powell:Today, we’re joined by John Samples. He’s a vice president here at the Cato Institute, and he founded and directs Cato’s Center for Representative Government and the First Amendment Project. Welcome back to Free Thoughts, John.

John Samples: Thanks for having me.

Aaron Powell: We’re talking about institutions today and what’s happened to America’s political institutions in the last year. When people use that term, when we talk [00:00:30] about America’s political institutions, what do we mean? What are we talking about?

John Samples: Well, I think you’re talking about the rules and practices and the constitutional framework, right? The concern, I think, about the last year when we started the year was that there would be … We have a system of government where it’s divided powers, the powers are balanced. We had elected a president who seemed to be unhappy with a lot of that, and he also seemed to have strong populist streak in [00:01:00] that he was going to threaten that kind of both the non‐​presidential institutions. It maybe the courts. It may be the other, maybe whatever, the states. And that he would essentially bring that kind of fragmented, liberal democracy further down the road toward being something else, a much more non‐​liberal democracy but populist.

And the institutions, then, which are [00:01:30] in the American system are really designed and were designed to stop someone like a populist, a demagogue, that they would not be up to the task. That the division of powers would not stop him. The First Amendment itself is an institution, the protection for freedom of speech backed by the courts. That’s an institution that constrains someone who is a populist, a demagogue, and so on.

Matthew Feeney:How do you think that [00:02:00] the institutions have faired in doing that job? I remember in the wake of the election, a lot of my anti‐​Trump friends or acquaintances were complaining. And my own thoughts on it were, well, let’s see how the institutions hold up. Let’s think about the courts, and courts are pretty robust. And I was trying to remain optimistic in these days. How well do you think they’ve actually faired?

John Samples:I think for most people who were concerned at the beginning of 2017, [00:02:30] they’ve probably done better than expected. In retrospect, an early sign was when he, or Steve Bannon and [Steve 00:02:38] Miller wrote the executive order about those predominantly Muslim countries. And that ran into, first of all, just sort of practical problems but also ran into the courts and was basically struck down and had to be revised and all sorts of things.

[00:03:00] That was an early good sign in that President Trump did not say like Andrew Jackson said or is alleged to have said, “John Marshall has made his decision; let him enforce it.” In other words, Donald Trump didn’t say, “I’m going to make America safe. I’m going to do what I was elected to do. I have the mandate. I’m going forward to protect America.” Instead, he dropped back, and they did what anybody [00:03:30] would do in that situation or what most administrations would do, is they started to try to get their act together to write something that could get through the courts. So that was a good sign that, for all the bluster and everything, he wasn’t up to high‐​scale constitutional crises and provoking them.

And in general, you would have to say, if I had one indication of … He’s had a lot of resistance. The press has been very resistant. He’s been very abusive to the press [00:04:00] and so on. If I had to say there was one thing that indicated his difficulties, it’s that you have a really good economy now, in some ways a stronger economy than we’ve had for a decade, so usually presidents really get a good boost from that, particularly the public approval of what they’re doing, right? So Donald Trump really should be in the 52, 54 range in terms of public support favoring the way he’s doing [00:04:30] his job. And that’s fairly high, a fairly good rating, but he is in fact struggling along in the high 30s, maybe the occasional poll will give you a 41, 42. So I think what we can say is, because of his behavior and the fear he evokes, that he’s probably paid a price of about 10 points at least and maybe more.

The other thing is he’s well on his way to causing another tripwire to go off, which is elections are supposed to … It’s [00:05:00] why we have not just everybody elected at the same time. You have the House and the Senate are off‐​years, and one‐​third of the Senate and so on. It looks like the Republican Party’s going to have a terrible blowout in 2018. I’m referring here to the, there’s a generic party preference, which is a fairly good indicator about where things are going is that … I heard there was a 17‐​point difference, [00:05:30] and we’ve had something like 13‐​point differences throughout the latter part of the fall.

That is, people preferred the Democrats in general about the congressional elections to the Republicans. This is a number that’s usually in the three to four. Maybe Republicans who are going to do well, they’re going to have a two‐ or three‐​point advantage, but usually these sort of things where 20 seats change hands are in that area. 17 points? I mean, they could lose 50 or 60 seats [00:06:00] the way we’re looking, which would be …

I mean, one thing you would say about Donald Trump, this pushback and the elections kicking in and him essentially really mobilizing his opponents. They really want to do something to stop him. All of that could be paid in a cost to economic liberty, although he himself is not all that big on economic liberty. It could be in that you get [00:06:30] a administration 2020 that has a majority that wants to do a lot more on taxes, a lot more on regulation, and so on.

So in a sense, even though many libertarians in my impression … And Donald Trump is not a libertarian. He’s an anti‐​libertarian, right, in may ways. My impression is that he could cause an anti‐​libertarian backlash on the economic side that could be very difficult in post‐​2020, [00:07:00] so there’s that.

But I would say I think there’s another area that’s really problematic in institutions, this question of norms, though. Generally where he has the ability to do damage, he really has. Just today as we sit here, of course there’s so many examples, right? Every week seems to bring two or three things that he says or tweets that then are discussed widely. And [00:07:30] they’re always behavior.

You notice there’s two aspect to it, right? People have certain expectations about what the president of the United States will do, that’s a norm, and then he contradicts it in some way. And of course, now, what’s going on as we tape this is that he’s called certain countries by a vulgar name in the middle of a negotiation session, and then it’s gotten out into public, and this is just not something one expects [00:08:00] from a president. He violates that norm.

It is interesting, I think he’s worse in a lot of ways because norm violation is actually pretty common. Let me give you an example about what I’m talking about. We expect that, maybe libertarians don’t, but many Americans do, that presidents won’t lie. But it’s pretty clear that in the run up to the Obamacare vote that President [00:08:30] Obama at the time did lie about whether you would able to keep your insurance. He had every reason to know that many people wouldn’t be able to. It had been a problem. They’d been honest about this in ’96, and it didn’t work.

So President Obama, I think he knew that people would lose it, and he said that because he was wanted … Why did he do that? It’s a classic political thing that Aaron talks about quite a bit, actually, which is the [00:09:00] greater good. He wanted to break the norm of not lying to achieve what he saw as coverage for people, extending coverage. So that’s kind of a typical thing. We have a norm, and President Obama, I think would’ve said, “Well” … He would’ve subscribed to the norm, but in that case, it was this other thing he wanted to do, and so he violated it.

But he didn’t say, “Oh, lying all the time is okay.” [00:09:30] And you also came out of it saying, “We didn’t think there are no norms.” The thing about President Trump is he breaks norms all the time, including the one about lying, and he doesn’t do it for any particular reason I can think of, except to just sort of … Am I wrong about this?

Matthew Feeney: He doesn’t seem to be able to help himself.

Aaron Powell: It seems that the constant reporting coming from inside the White House and from people who have been interacting with him is it doesn’t sound [00:10:00] like he’s the kind of creature that has reasons. That it’s just cause and effect, and it’s kind of cognitively beyond him. So I think he just is acting out. It’s just the way he acts.

But I want to ask about these norms because he is, yes, left and right he is breaking norms, refusing to follow along with norms. But that doesn’t seem like that’s quite the same thing as him changing norms or even really threatening [00:10:30] to change norms because he is wildly unpopular. And the result when he breaks one of these norms, when he says something, is a huge backlash from the majority of people.

I mean, you get his core base of supporters, which isn’t even the 37 to 40% of the country who approve of him. Typically, it’s an even smaller number are his really hardcore base. The self‐​described “deplorables,” they eat this stuff [00:11:00] up, but they were never part of those norms anyway. We just kind of can safely ignore them because they didn’t have any power.

It’s almost like when he does this, the rest of the country doubles down on its assertion of the original violated norm and says, “No, no, no. This is really important. We’re going to enforce it. We’re going to shame those who don’t.” So I guess I can see a pot that the likelihood, my prediction would be, if [00:11:30] the Trumpkins head to an overwhelming defeat in 2018, if Trump either chooses not to run again in 2020 or gets demolished in 2020, so you drive that portion of the American right into the wilderness, the rest of the country has spent these years effectively practicing norm enforcement of the original norms [00:12:00] and thinking about them and flexing those muscles. And so I think if anything, there’s a chance he could be strengthening those norms in the long run.

Matthew Feeney: As John mentioned, we’re recording this in the wake of the president saying something disparaging about‐

Aaron Powell:It’s Friday, January 12th.

Matthew Feeney: Friday, January 12th. And the president is reported to have said something very disparaging about a few countries. And journalists are very upset about this, and the press is running with it. But a lot of the commentary you hear is, “You know what, this [00:12:30] is how real people talk. And actually, he’s a man of the people.”

And some critical thing to remember, I think, is to remember is that these institutions that we’re talking about are inherently elitist in the sense of the courts, the politicians, journalism, these are all rather elite. I hope that Aaron is right that actually a lot of this stuff is actually unpopular out in what people call “real America.” But I don’t know. Is that something to worry about in the sense that we’re relying on [00:13:00] inherently elitist institutions?

John Samples: You got to rely on elite institutions anywhere you go. But Aaron makes a good case, and it’s possible, and we do see that, although a certain amount … It’s been one year that a certain amount of exhaustion may, and to some extent has maybe already set in. There’s talk of adapting to him and accepting him.

I think the problem here is that unlike … Go back to Barack Obama for a minute. President Obama, as I said, [00:13:30] may have broken the norm about lying, all right? But he didn’t deny the norm. He wouldn’t have. He might deny that he broke it if he were here with us, but he would still believe in the norm. I generally think that. President Trump breaks the norm, and there’s this frequency problem. He does it all the time. He does it five times before breakfast, right?

Aaron Powell:Five tweets before breakfast.

John Samples:Yeah, well, most of them involve norm breaking. But he also appears to deny that [00:14:00] norms are valuable or that they’re binding or that they should be binding, right? Because everyone breaks norms in one way or the other at some point. But what’s different about him is the idea that I think there’s an underlying thing, an underlying view that, “It’s all BS anyway, and I’m burning the house down here,” right? And the house is these norms.

Now, [00:14:30] here’s where Aaron and I could possibly differ. Just the way it works out differs. The people who are concerned about this are often people who say it’s very important that the president is doing this because people, they’re not libertarian in the way we always want libertarian people to be independent minded, to make up their own mind, to stay away from partisanship, all this stuff.

People look to the president as a leader who sets a kind of moral [00:15:00] structure or whatever, or just actually examples for people to follow, and that if the president is doing this despite all of the good pushback and all of that, that it’s going to affect the underlying culture of the society such that when it’s somewhat … And that if he’s the first of many like this, we’ve fallen and we can’t get back up, then this is going to be an acceptable way. It’s [00:15:30] just will be a different set of norms that will be … But norms, the very idea of these non‐​constitutional, non‐​legal, non‐​statutory things that we accept, it will itself be gone. And so everyone will be burning down the house all the time, and that’ll be the way you win, all right?

I agree with you, though. I see your point in the sense that it does look like the system [00:16:00] is working better, and it’s also … A lot of people have followed him down his particular rabbit hole. So you think about significant national newspapers that have stuff about him or news channels that have stuff about him all the time. They’re going to be a different institution after this administration is over than they were going in, right? Is that a good thing or a bad thing? You might say, “Well, they were always [00:16:30] partisan anyway. They were just more careful about it.” But he’s essentially dragged everyone down with him. And Ross Douthat had this piece in March of last year, at the beginning when he urged the DC media and so on not to go down the rabbit hole with him, but most have, right?

I think that things are going better than expected, I guess I would say, but I’m worried about the effects of this over time and [00:17:00] they’re kind of incremental and so on. And it is because he’s the president, and he also doesn’t seem to … He doesn’t agree that the president should offer any kind of model of behavior, which you have to say is very different from, for all the things I would disagree with with the previous two presidents, was not true, right? They had a sense of, you had to do this stuff. [00:17:30] He seems to think, well, you just do anything, and screw it. If I had to say one thing, that was it. Yeah.

Aaron Powell: When you were giving your assessment of how America’s political institutions have functioned and stood up to Trump in the last year … So you said that, basically, they stood up better than many feared they would. [00:18:00] And I’m curious about why that is, so what the lesson to draw from that regarding our institutions and their enduring strength.

Because on the one hand, you can draw the lesson that our institutions are stronger than we thought they were. But the other thing we might learn from it is simply that Donald Trump turned out to be far more breathtakingly incompetent than we expected him to be. So do you [00:18:30] think one of those is the stronger case? Do you think that their institutions are in fact slightly stronger than we thought?

John Samples:In a situation like this, the lesson you don’t learn is very important, all right? It could be very important, and by that I mean we could conclude right now he was president, and that seemed really bad and everything, but the institutions held up, let’s not worry. We don’t have to worry about it. However, I think you’re correct. I think that, in a sense, we got lucky and surprisingly [00:19:00] so because he doesn’t behave like any politician in a way.

In other words, he doesn’t even do things that seem to be to advance his power and popularity and so on. And he also seems completely unfamiliar with the job and unwilling to learn anything about it, and actually he does seem to be … In a sense the country lucked [00:19:30] out to the extent that he is an actual threat. He’s incompetent.

It also could be that he’s redefining the job of president. It could be the incompetence is such in terms of actual governance. He doesn’t really try all that much to govern, as far as I can tell. Although people in his administration certainly do, but you may have a bifurcation here in that the president may become entertainer‐​in‐​chief. He sort of goes around calling the other side [00:20:00] names and saying outrageous things, just as if you were on television in some way. And then there’s the rest of the administration. It’s filled with sort of depending people that have some experience and they can get whatever is done, what you can get through Congress and the bureaucracy and so on.

So you have a new American presidency, which is that, and then this business about Oprah Winfrey running for president, which was greeted with … [00:20:30] We don’t know that she wouldn’t be a very strong candidate in terms of winning a general election, but she would, I think, even though she seems to be somewhat different in personality, she would be a continuation of that model, right? In which you have no political experience needed, but you really should be on TV and be entertaining if you want to be president.

And then what you will have done is cut whatever connection there was between [00:21:00] elections and the deliberation of sorts before that and the governance. The president offers, in some way, the one place where elections don’t translate directly into policy, but they are connected.

Matthew Feeney: That makes me wonder about what you said earlier about norms, which is that norms can change, and powerful people change them, whether deliberately or not deliberately. And I sometimes [00:21:30] wonder if Trump inadvertently is actually changing politics in a sense where it becomes considered totally normal for someone like Oprah Winfrey to run for president, and in 2020 or 2024, we’ll just have to deal with a bunch of former celebrities or current celebrities who think in light of Trump that this is a normal thing and that the norm, which was that career politicians run for president, will have been broken. Now, [00:22:00] net positive or net benefit, I guess, is too soon to tell, but norms change.

John Samples:Speaking about norms and wishing to be considered fair by anyone, I think also anyone listening to this, I think you have to take into account that the person who ran against him, though he keeps running against her despite the fact that the election’s over, many people were against her because they believed [00:22:30] with more than a little reason that the norms that applied to everyone else, say, lower‐​level people in the intelligence apparatus, didn’t apply to her. She could violate those norms in setting up the email and all that stuff, and Trump ran basically on the idea that an entire elite was full of it on those things. They didn’t follow those kinds of …

[00:23:00] The other thing we haven’t mentioned is things like breaking norms about instructing members of the Justice Department to prosecute his former opponent. And during that, I mean, I still, I think, will remember for the rest of my life the Republican National Convention, when the chant is “put the other opponent in jail.” These were not things that … I mean, maybe there was a lot of BS going. There always was in politics and campaigns. [00:23:30] But that was striking, even though it was a bunch of stuff that’s true about her.

Aaron Powell:Going forward, then, so this fear that we our electoral system switches to something where it’s if you want to win the presidency, you have to be a big celebrity who’s been on TV, and so we get big celebrities who’ve been on TV as our presidents, how much control do [00:24:00] the parties have over that? Trump won because of the way that the primary system worked. If the two major parties decided that it was not in their interests to live in that kind of world for whatever reason, could they flex their muscles, change up those systems, and try to prevent it from happening?

John Samples: Here I’m going [00:24:30] to go with an authority, my friend [Robert Bauer 00:24:32], who knows about as much as … He’s worked for the Democratic Party for many years and know about as much about parties. As it works, he happens to be around people who say we need stronger parties. In some ways, the 1968 situation, right? Bobby Kennedy won a primary, but he wasn’t going to get the nomination because the party elders or the party leaders said, “This is our guy, is Humphrey.” Can you have stronger [00:25:00] parties? And Bauer’s view is you really shouldn’t go down that path because there’s no way to get to it, right? You can’t build parties back that way.

Certainly, that would be the kind of elite filtering process. We keep coming back to James Madison and Federalist 10, right? Filtering, the word is “filtering.” We’re trying to filter the popular will into things that are truly in the best interest of [00:25:30] the entire undertaking, including the permanent interests of the society, he says. Well, that would be a filtering device, but it’s not …

The Democrats are probably in better shape to do that, but again, these people that we’re talking about, if this happens, it’ll be because they’re very popular, right? It’ll be Oprah will get the nomination because she will be highly likely to beat [00:26:00] Donald Trump or other candidates. So I don’t think we can count on the parties to stop that. We’ve sort of blown out that constraint in a way.

Matthew Feeney:So, so far we’ve talked about institutions that have clear boundaries or definitions, things like the court system, and also ones that are slightly more nebulous, so the press, which seems to apply to everything from the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, CNN, but also to [00:26:30] blogs that some people would consider now to be included in this umbrella of the press.

But there’s another institution that seems like the press to be rather poorly defined, which is this thing called the deep state that has got a lot of play in the last year or so. A question that you could answer for the listeners, what do people mean when they talk about the deep state? And what kind of impact has it had on the first year of Trump’s presidency?

John Samples: I think it depends on who you’re talking to. If you take a [00:27:00] very negative view of the deep state, it’s kind of permanent people, particularly who work in the intelligence and perhaps also the Justice Department who are permanent members of the Washington bureaucracy and, therefore, from this point of view, people who are exactly the people Donald Trump was talking about and people threatened by his effort to “drain the swamp” and so on.

[00:27:30] More generally, I think when you talk about the deep state, you’re talking about the permanent bureaucracy. There’s a lot of it. It’s always been an issue for any president coming in when they follow a member of the other party. A longstanding effort or practice was for people to take political appointees and bury them in the bureaucracy and merit system jobs, and so [00:28:00] nice little bomb waiting there to impede the next administration.

So over time, you have lots of people inside a bureaucracy that for a bureaucratic partisan or other reasons … Remember the FBI agent talking about how bad Trump was and the insurance policy and all of that, that’s sort of just an ideological or just a repulsion, right? As opposed to a partisanship or whatever. These [00:28:30] people, in a sense, they don’t have absolutely veto, but they can impede you, and that’s what’s happened.

Going back to Aaron’s comment about competence, I mean, you could say the special prosecutor was part of the revenge of the deep state, but that was just that you got yourself there goes back to … I mean, if you’re an experienced [00:29:00] campaigner and politician and president, the one thing you do is you stay away from stuff that can come back and bite you, right? So that’s the campaign meeting with Russian agents, whatever happened, or Russian people, whatever happened there. Just apart from that, you stay away from that. You don’t do things like firing Comey and so on.

I think, and in some ways, Mr. Trump believes his own rhetoric [00:29:30] about the presidency. And it’s a rhetoric that sort of many of us bought in that the presidency was this … He had it even more, which was it was kind of like a king in which everything was a prerogative. You just had discretion on everything, including libel laws, he seemed to think. Other people had like it’s too strong, but we didn’t believe it had all of those prerogatives where we wanted to constitutionally … He seems to believe it was like a king, and [00:30:00] he acted on that belief, and that’s caused a lot of his problems.

Matthew Feeney: Maybe it’s of some reassurance that, at least for the president, it seems to be an instinct rather than a thought‐​through ideology in that he didn’t … It seems to me when he fired Comey, it wasn’t really clear that he didn’t understand that it’s just not the sort of thing that presidents are supposed to do, which is to fire the FBI director without a good cause. It just seemed that he instinctively [00:30:30] wanted to get rid of him and proceeded. So perhaps the ignorance of the norms will help us in the long run.

Aaron Powell:Yeah. I think that’s an instance where he’s … I mean, Trump seems to be someone who clearly cannot update information. He has a way of thinking about things, and that’s the way things are, and he can’t change it. The Comey thing was fascinating because not only did he not realize that wasn’t the kind of thing a [00:31:00] president should do, but he genuinely thought that just firing Comey would kind of end the whole thing, which was very clear that that’s in his businesses where he was the king in effect, if there was someone he didn’t like, he just got rid of them, and then they went away, and he never had to hear about them again. And so he just kind of assumes that suddenly the United States government and the United States at large is now just like The [00:31:30] Trump Organization, and he can act the same way, and he has the same degree of power.

There is, I can’t remember where it was reported, but the talk of when he was running, it was Kellyanne Conway who said this, but talking about how when he won, all of these people who disrespected him were suddenly going to have to respect him, were suddenly going to have to like … They thought that that’s how it worked. And to fundamentally not get that this [00:32:00] system is so different that firing Comey would only make things dramatically worse in a way that he would be powerless to do anything about … He seems stuck in this mindset of running his small, family business, which The Trump Organization was really a small business in a lot of ways, and he just can’t figure out that he’s in a different environment. And so he’s just doing the same things with disastrous results as far as he’s concerned.

John Samples: Well, there’s also, I think, [00:32:30] a larger picture here that has run its course now and may continue running this way. In a way, if you look at Watergate, the presidents elected afterwards were frequently outsiders. And there was a kind of narrative that seemed to fit, which is the outsider comes from the states, are frequently a governor, and he’s going to clean up Washington, “drain the swamp,” and make everything … Now, with Carter and Reagan and Clinton even, you did have people who were professional [00:33:00] politicians who had political experience. They had some idea … Particularly with Reagan had run a small country for eight years and so on, but also the other two, and they had their ups and downs and so on.

But the search for the outsider, the man on the white horse in a way, but Americans are big about the pure guy from outside that’s not tainted by the system. Even Bush, George W. From … George H. W. is the only one that’s the insider, [00:33:30] right? H. W. and Barack Obama for a variety of reasons. Even though he was a senator, was a outsider in many ways. You could see him that way.

And Trump is the ultimate person like that. He is the guy that’s going to come and “drain the swamp” and blow it up and burn it down and make it all better. And that’s just not the way you actually make things better. For our agenda [00:34:00] somehow, if we were going to get serious buy‐​in and serious changes toward it, is going to take people that can convince others to do it. It’s got to have political experience and knows how to get Congress to do it.

Aaron Powell: One thing that I have found myself thinking about in this first year is, so we talk about the notion of rational ignorance among voters, that that can explain why voters often make bad decisions [00:34:30] because it’s not in their best interest to spend the amount of time studying policy issues and economics and law and all of that that you would need in order to really know the difference between these candidates or know how these policies would play out. That kind of ignorance is, I mean, we call it rational, so in a sense it’s excusable ignorance because for most people, given the insignificance of your vote, it would actually be the wrong decision for them to put that amount of investment [00:35:00] in to learning this stuff.

But the thing that struck me about Trump’s election, and then the way his first year has played out, and then the core of his base that remains committed to him, is there’s a different sort of ignorance at play here that I think you can’t call rational and, in fact, is a much more troubling kind of ignorance, both in terms of what it did here [00:35:30] and going forward but also in terms of, I think, the nature of democracy.

And that’s an ignorance of, if I were to put it in virtue ethical terms, as I frequently do on Free Thoughts, it would be an ignorance in the practical and intellectual virtues, an absolutely inability to recognize basic competence, that it was obvious throughout the whole campaign that this was a man who, regardless [00:36:00] of his policies, was utterly incompetent to govern and would be terrible when he got elected. That wasn’t a partisan issue. Everyone recognized that except suddenly a bunch of Americans didn’t, and a lot of Americans still don’t.

And that seems to me to be a really troubling thing about American democracy, American electorate, is not just that they’re rationally ignorant about policy issues, but they seem to have now displayed that they [00:36:30] are incapable of recognizing basic human functioning to even do the job in the first place.

John Samples: That’s possibly true. We don’t know how many people of that and how many new voters and so on. But I would say also, remember the intellectual case for Trump’s election made by a intellectual was the Flight 93 election, right? As you may know about the Flight 93 election, it’s [00:37:00] we’re on Flight 93 that went down in Pennsylvania, except it’s an election, and Hillary Clinton is flying the plane, and we know how this ends. And here’s this guy over here that doesn’t seem like he’s knows anything. Remember, this was an article because conservative intellectuals were having their doubts, let’s say. And there’s this guy over here, Donald Trump, he may not be able to fly the plane, but we still should rush the cockpit and put him in and see if he [00:37:30] can fly it because we know what the next alternative is.

So I think a lot of people saw it less as … They had some delusions about Donald Trump I would guess, but we all have some delusions. But they saw her as so bad that, in a way, it was a better to take a … The plane was going to crash, likely, whatever you were doing because we were in a certain situation. But take a chance on him [00:38:00] because he was better than she was, even though you could acknowledge that she was bad.

Now, I think it is an interesting question you raise. I just don’t know how I could sort out … We do know that still he got 90 million votes, 90% of the Republican vote, that’s about normal for a candidate. He’s maintained a pretty good approval rating among Republicans. It [00:38:30] could also be that what you identify as ignorance is just a kind of, what I would talk about as an extreme partisanship that has gone too far. It’s sucked up everything in its path, and so it’s all about red team or blue team, and there’s no independent …

We see this in the public opinion data. People don’t make independent, by and large, at least the people that move don’t make independent decisions about whether the federal government can do [00:39:00] what is right most of the time. When their team is in, yes, the answer is it can. When their team is out, about 20 or 30% just shift over into the other column. So it could be that, while partisanship has its uses, it’s just gotten out of hand here, and people ignore … In a sense, maybe you could say that the Flight 93 argument itself is a sign of partisanship out of control.

Matthew Feeney:To me, [00:39:30] the whole argument just seemed to be a little strange because the analogies weren’t working, at least when I read the Flight 93 article. But we got to be careful about overstating the degree of support that he … So, yeah, 90% of Republican voters, but President Trump, I believe this is correct, had fewer votes than Mitt Romney in 2012. It’s not as if there was this massive swell of popular support.

Your mention of Flight [00:40:00] 93 reminded me of P. J. O’Rourke’s comment about the election where he said that Clinton is wrong but wrong within normal parameters. I think actually it’s really quite important to keep within the normal parameters, that it actually is worth, even if you know that a Clinton administration would be a disaster, at least it would be a disaster within the norm.

Now, it could be that, like we mentioned earlier, norms change [00:40:30] and the outcome of that remains to be seen. But isn’t that important? Isn’t it important to think, “Yeah, we got to keep within some certain norms, we shouldn’t just throw caution to the wind because we really, really don’t like the other candidate”?

John Samples: Well, that’s the problem. It does seem like people had talked themselves into thinking that he wasn’t so bad or she was really bad, right? There was, as I say, reason to [00:41:00] think that she was breaking norms. Maybe it was overdone. The other thing is you could say, well, what we’ve had here, to go back to a topic from a couple minutes ago, I mean, what we have here is a fairly normal Republican administration with perhaps fewer, given that they have a majority in both houses, fewer achievements to their … But they got rid of a lot of regulation on the executive order side. So apart from the craziness at 1600 [00:41:30] and his fighting with others and his behavior, this is just a maybe a little inexperience but is a pretty normal administration.

One of the great concerns about the coming year is NAFTA stayed firm, the trading system was okay last year and 2017, and so on and so forth. The immigration stuff is starting to happen, but the actual big stuff on the … [00:42:00] Orders go stopped, blah, blah, blah. So there may be much worse to come, but it looks like kind of like you could argue that, but you can’t argue that about the behavior of the president.

Aaron Powell:I’ve heard the argument that one of the reasons the Republican Congress seemed to look the other way on a lot of this and be somewhat protective of him and not critical of him and not distance themselves from him was because they wanted to get [00:42:30] through their signature legislation. And Obamacare failed in that regard and is likely off the table now, but they just recently got their big tax bill through.

With that now done, which was the other big one that they were hoping for, and especially with the prospect of getting their clocks cleaned in 2018, do you think that we start to see [00:43:00] more Republican members of Congress thinking, “I should distance myself from him, I should be more critical”? Or even go so far as to thinking, “We might be able to get a lot more done with Pence”?

John Samples: I guess I would say that they don’t have to worry about those issues, but they may be thinking about primary voters. They could be concerned that their voters don’t … Again, a [00:43:30] pretty solidly placed House member’s going to be a in a 60/40 district, but if they lose 10% of the vote, they’re in trouble. And there does seem to be blood in the water. There do seem to be people retiring. There seem to be good‐​quality Democrats coming out. It’s really looking like a blowout’s coming. And so if you go out there, at least between now and election day, and oppose him, I think people are going to be afraid of being Jeff Flake electorally, even though they might want to be Jeff [00:44:00] Flake on the moral side of things.

So the behavior of Congress as a blocking mechanism does show something Gene Healy has said from time to time, which is the separation of powers doesn’t work so well when you have high partisanship and a Congress that is controlled by the president’s party. I mean, he was abusive of the, really abusive of the both, not so much [00:44:30] Ryan but of McConnell. And even that, McConnell is kind of like a very rational kind of … He doesn’t get upset about things. But my God, that was kind of norm. I mean, you’d say those things behind their back or behind closed doors. All of the stuff he says has been said, he just says it all in public, right? And that’s another breaking of a norm. Because when you say it behind closed doors, it means you know [00:45:00] this is not something you should be doing, and he doesn’t seem to get the two.

You raise the question of impeachment, I think we should talk about. Twenty‐​fifth Amendment’s another kind of issue and all of that. I guess I talked on Cato’s podcast about this. If he’s going to be impeached and removed, I would like for it to be clear cut so that a rational person and maybe two‐​thirds to three‐​quarters of the population says, “Yeah, he’s [00:45:30] got to go.”

I think to remove him because he is the way he is may well be justified. Constitutionally, that might be there. But I think we have to worry about making things worse than they are in the following sense. Having a significant part of the population running around thinking that this was a illegitimate act would not be good because [00:46:00] the doubts about the legitimacy of the government are, to some extent, what caused Trump himself. I think there needs to be some consent, not perfect, but there ought to be some.

The thing about it is, he may do things or things may come out where two out of three people, no matter whether they supported him or not, say, ” [00:46:30] Yeah, he’s guilty.” They just haven’t made it up. It’s not a deep state conspiracy. It’s not just the Dems got power in 2018 and they’re doing a partisan thing. No, this is, yeah, that’s what we got. But we’re not anywhere near there yet, and it’s not clear that he will have done that. I do think, of course, you’re paying a legitimacy price now, [00:47:00] too.

The Twenty‐​fifth Amendment, Gene has convinced me is that’s … I mean, he would have to be stark raving mad in some situation to get that done. Again, there, you’re probably really talking about a much more higher demand on consent. I mean, I think he would have to be Wilsonian in that he has a stroke [00:47:30] or something like that, that he’s incapacitated or he begins to behave in ways that we associate with madness.

So again, there’s been a little chatter about this since last week that there’s something wrong with the world we’re living in here. Every week, we go through this stuff. We could come in here every week and talk about the things that have gone on. This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, and even [00:48:00] though the consequences … The year has been good in some ways, even from a libertarian perspective. Chris Edwards has talked a long time about tax reform. We got some of that and so on. But it’s been a very weird and just not as terrible as expected, and I just don’t know where we’re going.

Aaron Powell:Thanks for listening. This episode of Free Thoughts was produced by Tess Terrible and Evan Banks. [00:48:30] To learn more, visit us at www​.lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org.