Culture

Is the Presidency Driving Us Nuts?

President Trump departs Air Force One in Rome, May 2017. (Reuters photo: Remo Casilli)
For too long, both Democrats and Republicans have treated the president like an elected king, omniscient and all-powerful.

Another week, another episode of As the Trump Turns, the parody of a soap opera that our government has become. This week’s installment revolves around Michael Wolff’s new tell-all book, Fire and Fury.

I have no intention of reading this book or lingering on its details. I don’t really care if it’s true, false, or something in between. Instead, I’m more interested in the acute derangement that Donald Trump continues to produce within our political system.

It is not good when a body politic is so susceptible to being confounded as the United States has been. We can, of course, blame Trump — or his opponents, depending on your political predilections — but I think there is also an institutional cause for our discontents. The fact that any president could rile up the nation as Trump has is an illustration of how overgrown the executive power has become.

The notion of “coequal branches” is a 20th-century invention. For most of the nation’s history prior to the Great Depression, the president played second fiddle to Congress. This was by constitutional design. The Framers envisioned the legislature, not the president, as the fount of republican authority, and they designed a government accordingly. The presidents we recall from the first century of American history — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln — are exceptions to the general rule.

In fact, when Republican Teddy Roosevelt introduced a new sort of vigor into the presidential office, Democrats roundly mocked him for it. The Democratic party’s 1904 platform included this rebuke:

The existing Republican administration has been spasmodic, erratic, sensational, spectacular, and arbitrary. It has made itself a satire upon the Congress, courts, and upon the settled practices and usages of national and international law.

Matters really began to change in a permanent way when Progressive Democrats gained power, first with Woodrow Wilson and especially Franklin Roosevelt. This was when political power began to be reoriented around the executive branch, giving the president a leadership role that he had only occasionally possessed before.

FDR’s administration was the moment that the president also began to make heavy use of mass-communications technology. FDR gave regular talks over the radio. Harry Truman made the first presidential appearance on television. Dwight Eisenhower was the first to run a television ad. You know the rest: Presidential exposure has scaled up accordingly.

And what we have developed, in a relatively short span of time (less than 70 years), is a pervasive sense of presidential omnipotence and omniscience. The president appears to us to be the all-powerful master of our government, and he is everywhere.

I think this might be driving us crazy.

The early seedbed of presidential mania, by my recollection, was cultivated by right-wing conspiracy theorists such as David Brock (before he morphed into a left-wing conspiracy theorist), who made all kinds of incendiary accusations about Bill Clinton. Hillary Clinton did not spin from whole cloth her notion of a “right-wing conspiracy” — there were factions out there that thought Clinton was akin to the antichrist.

Hatred went mainstream in the aughts on the Democratic side. One cannot help but read Jonathan Chait’s “The Case for Bush Hatred,” in The New Republic, and pity the man. The 43rd president was clearly living rent-free in his head. And to be honest, I felt some symptoms of “Obama Derangement Syndrome” between 2009 and 2017. It drove me a little crazy that the president would begin with some broad, anodyne statement about the American creed and inevitably conclude from it that conservative ideas were “not who we are.”

I think one reason for these bipartisan manifestations of presidential derangement syndrome is the mythological foundation of the modern presidency. A core operating assumption of the office is that one human being can possibly speak for the national interest generally understood. That is fanciful. At most, the president will always express a particular view of the national interest, thereby creating the potential for cognitive dissonance in a sizable minority of the country. Because he is now able to speak to us so often, this mental discomfort can be nearly constant for his opponents. And because he is now so powerful, he also makes it seem to them that he is ruining the country.

Trump being Trump, he has managed to create a whole new, much more virulent strain of presidential derangement — the sort that makes Chait’s complaints about George W. Bush (or my lamentations about Obama) seem quaint. Nobody in modern history has been as adept as Trump at using modern media — from the New York tabloids in the 1970s to Twitter and Fox News in 2017 — for his own purposes. Trump used the media to win the GOP nomination in 2016, then to beat Hillary Clinton in the general election. And now one could argue that he is using the media primarily to drive his political adversaries around the bend.

The knee-jerk partisan reaction to presidential derangement syndrome, from its mildest to most severe forms, is: WE HAVE TO TAKE BACK THE WHITE HOUSE! I used to have that desire, but now I think that’s a loser’s game, in the long run.

Concentrating governing power around one person out of 330 million people, and making that person the biggest celebrity in the world, is not a very republican way of running a country.

Instead, I try to remember that our country is supposed to be a republic, which — in Lincoln’s famous definition — is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Concentrating governing power around one person out of 330 million people, and making that person the biggest celebrity in the world, is not a very republican way of running a country. It is more like an elective kingship — and a badly designed one, at that.

Republican government is at its best when citizens, and by extension their elected leaders, are dispassionate and prepared to compromise. Focusing all of our energy and enmity on the presidential office creates a civic totem that needlessly riles the public up and reduces the willingness to compromise.

It also ignores the clear constitutional hierarchy, which continues to exist whether we notice it or not: Congress is the first branch of government, as set out in the first article of the Constitution. Yet our Congress today, most of us would agree, is a total embarrassment. Maybe that has something to do with the fact that, for more than a half-century, we have spent most of our civic energy fussing over the executive branch.

The optimist in me wants to believe that Trump’s tenure in office will help people realize that the executive office is now too big and powerful for a republic such as ours. By operating a burlesqued version of the modern administration, maybe Trump is revealing the many institutional flaws that have long been extant. Perhaps people will finally realize that the executive needs to be scaled back, and Congress should be reformed and restored.

That’s my hope, at any rate. Fanciful, I know, but stranger things have happened, right?

READ MORE:

No, the 25th Amendment Doesn’t Apply to Trump

Judge Trump by his Record, not Michael Wolff’s Gossip

The Guardrails of American Democracy Can’t Contain Trump

Jay Cost — Jay Cost is the author of The Price of Greatness: James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and the Creation of American Oligarchy.

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