An Unprecedented President

by Yuval Levin

Being a sucker for civic rituals, I’ve attended every presidential inauguration since Clinton’s second in 1997. Regardless of my opinion of the person being inaugurated—when I have voted for him and when I have not—I’ve stood in the rain or the cold and relished the opportunity to observe the ceremony and hear what the new or returning chief executive has to say. 

So I was there today too. Both rain and cold were on offer, and the ceremonial aspects of the day were unchanged from the past five. Showing up for each inauguration is a good reminder that the president’s time is limited. The same kind of crowd will be there for the same kind of ceremony four years from today, perhaps for the same president or perhaps for another. It will seem to have passed in a flash.

Trump’s speech was what any observer of his campaign rhetoric might have expected, for good and bad. Rooted in the view that contemporary American life is a nightmarish scene of unrelenting carnage, despair, and desolation caused by the simple unwillingness of our leaders to act in America’s interest, Trump’s rhetoric manages to exaggerate our problems and yet also exaggerate how easy it would be to solve them. It lets him set a low bar for himself yet also causes him to make promises no one could keep. 

But the speech was also rooted, as much of Trump’s rhetoric has been, in a plainly genuine patriotism and in a healthy sense that leaders need to care for their country and not just for some theoretical ideal version of their country. Trump also did a better job than I’ve heard him do before of connecting his vision to the country’s desire for unity. I think it has always been linked to it, offering a particular (if problematic) answer to the question of how to address our divisions. But he came closer here, even using the term solidarity, to suggesting that he believes that by building walls around our country we can break down the walls within our society. Although I think it grossly understates the challenges of unity in our vast and diverse country, this is one serious answer to the challenge of solidarity in 21st century America, and it is in many respects a more coherent and appealing answer than the one the Left tends to propose. 

But to draw these themes out of Trump’s remarks is not to say that he offered a traditional inaugural address geared to conveying his particular vision. The speech he delivered was normal for him, but not for presidential inaugural addresses. And in the broader context of the inaugural ceremony, it helped to bring into sharper relief for me the ways in which Trump is likely to be very unusual.  

Observing these ceremonies every four years is a reminder that the presidency is for the most part a pre-defined role in a larger political drama—a niche that can be occupied by different people with different goals and characters, and used by them to their different ends while largely keeping its shape. That shape has itself changed over time, of course, mostly expanding in our living memory. But the office has grown through use (and over-use) and every president has run to fill the role. The inaugural ceremony helps to highlight this: It is essentially the same every time, with a different glutton for punishment taking the same oath as all who came before, and setting out to occupy the same position in the same system. 

But Trump’s way of speaking about his vision and intentions suggests his case will be different. He did not really run to occupy the presidency as it exists, and does not seem to think of himself as stepping now into a role he is obliged to carry out. He ran to disrupt a broken system, and to be himself but with more power and authority. He is our president, but he has not taken on the job with any clear sense of the presidency as a distinct function and office which he should now stretch and bend to embody.

This has not been easy to accept, and so we have tended implicitly to wait for the moment when Trump would put aside his childish antics and step up into the role. Or else we have inclined to think about the prospects for Trump’s presidency in terms of whether he would be too strong or too weak a president. But this is probably the wrong way to think about what Trump is doing. He is not filling the role in a certain way. He is playing a different role. He is being himself. 

This suggests a different way to think about the challenges and opportunities the Trump presidency may pose. Trump seems inclined to leave largely unfilled the part traditionally played by the president in our system while playing another part formed around the peculiar contours of his bombastic, combative, and at times surely disordered personality. That means that Trump’s team, the Congress, the courts, and the public will need to confront the implications of both the absence of a more traditional president and the presence of a different and unfamiliar kind of figure at the heart of the constitutional order. These are two distinct problems. 

There may well be some bright sides to both of these facets of our situation. The absence of a strong executive on the model that has taken form (and grown ever stronger) since at least the middle of the last century could become a spur to a reassertion of congressional authority in its proper realm, or in any case a shrinking of the president’s role in the everyday work of governing. The presence of a bombastic populist in the White House could force some common sense on a political culture too dominated by abstract sloganeering. Trump is often irresponsible, but he has better political instincts than most of our politicians. Responding to the presence of this unusual figure at the heart of our politics with an effort to formulate responsible applications of his political instincts could redound to the good in some cases. 

But there are obviously dark sides to both facets too. The absence of an executive eager to play his complex part could easily drive our constitutional system badly out of balance and leave it unfocused and hapless. And in foreign policy it looks likely to undermine the post-World War II system of liberal-democratic alliances in which the President of the United States has had a distinct role to play for seven decades, about which Trump appears to know or care very little. And the presence of an undisciplined, aggressive performance artist at the heart of our system of government, a figure whose excesses are not structurally counterbalanced by others in the system (in the way that the excesses of the traditional presidency are), could alter the public’s expectations of government and politics in ways decidedly unhelpful to American constitutionalism. 

This combination of potential good and harm poses a very complicated problem for Congress, for Trump’s cabinet and staff, and for others in the constitutional system. The morning after the election, I suggested we might think of this as a standing crisis in the executive—and that these years would yield many important opportunities, but also grave risks. The transition period has left me with the same sense, eased a little by some of Trump’s cabinet and other personnel choices but sharpened too by the sense that our new president enters office without a clear idea of the job. 

President Trump’s term seems less likely than that of any modern president’s to be defined by the role of the presidency in our system of government—not just by the limits of that role but even by its general form. Instead, to a greater degree than any modern president, his time in office seems likely to be shaped by his own character and personality. This is not good news. 

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