In the age of Donald Trump, it often feels as though one individual has the power to chart the United States’ course in the world all by himself. Since taking office as U.S. president, Trump has made a series of unilateral decisions with enormous consequences. He walked away from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris agreement on climate change, and the Iran nuclear deal. He imposed tariffs on Canada, China, Mexico, and the European Union. In June, he single-handedly upended the G-7 summit by insulting Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and withdrawing the United States from the group’s joint communiqué. In July, his European travels produced more diplomatic fireworks, with a NATO summit in Brussels that raised questions about his commitment to the organization—before his deferential press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Each choice has brought howls of outrage—but little real pushback. Congress, for example, has proved unable to block the president from starting a trade war with China and with U.S. allies. For all of Trump’s talk of a shadowy “deep state” bent on undermining his every move, the U.S. government’s vast bureaucracy has watched as the president has dragged his feet on a plan to deter Russian election interference. Even the United States’ closest allies have been unable to talk Trump out of damaging and potentially withdrawing from institutions of the liberal international order that the country has led for decades. How can a political system vaunted for its checks and balances allow one person to act so freely?
In reality, the problem goes well beyond Trump, and even beyond the well-documented trend of increasing presidential power. Constraints on the president—not just from Congress but also from the bureaucracy, allies, and international institutions—have been eroding for decades. Constraints are like muscles:
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