Politics & Policy

Donald Trump and the Imperial Presidency

President Trump at the White House in 2018. (File photo: Leah Millis/Reuters)
A single person has come to exercise almost total spiritual, moral, and psychological control over civil society.

As the writer of a weekly political column in the Age of Trump (ugh), I have lately been wondering if, bereft of an idea, I might just write TRUMP over and over again, 750 times, and get people to read it.

An idle thought — perhaps. After all, this was the week when my Twitter timeline was full of mainstream journalists snarking idly about the front row of George H. W. Bush’s funeral, where (guess who!) President Donald Trump was sitting. When they were done with that, they began speculating idly about the various meanings of various criminal filings against Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen, two one-time associates of (guess who!) President Trump’s. And of course they are gearing up to hit the trail with the 800 or so Democrats planning to run for president in 2020, whose campaigns are sure to focus on (guess who!) President Trump.

This is such a pathetic time for our republic. Hopefully, future generations will learn from our frivolous idolatry.

Most people are inclined to think about the Age of Trump from a moral perspective, but that is not my first instinct. I’m an institutionalist at heart. I think human beings are what they are, for the most part. That is not to say that civic virtue is unimportant. It is. Instead, it is my tendency to assume a baseline of good and evil in people, and then ask — as Madison and Hamilton put it in The Federalist Papers — whether the “science of politics” can channel their antisocial tendencies into constructive endeavors. So when people look at Trump as a statement about the American character, I instead see him as a statement about the structure of our government.

I contend that Donald Trump represents the apotheosis of the imperial presidency, whereby a single person has come to exercise almost total spiritual, moral, and psychological control over civil society. His tenure as commander in chief reveals that this model of governance is basically unsound and incoherent. I strongly believe that, in the long run, an institution such as our modern presidency is incompatible with a free, prosperous republic.

The Founder’s Constitution does not bequeath us an imperial presidency, a Bourbonesque tyrant whose motto is L’état, c’est moi. Rather, our presidency was originally meant to be a radically Whiggish take on the concept of a chief executive: The president was to stop intemperate or unjust laws but otherwise mainly leave domestic policymaking to the Congress; his domain, rather, was to be in foreign affairs.

Some of the Founders (such as Edmund Randolph, our first attorney general) did not even want a unitary executive, instead preferring a council, to keep power from accruing into a single person. But Hamilton makes the better case in Federalist 70:

Energy in the Executive is a leading character in the definition of good government. It is essential to the protection of the community against foreign attacks; it is not less essential to the steady administration of the laws; to the protection of property against those irregular and high-handed combinations which sometimes interrupt the ordinary course of justice; to the security of liberty against the enterprises and assaults of ambition, of faction, and of anarchy.

Hamilton was probably the most pro-executive thinker among all the Founders, but his view is still a long way off from the style of presidential governance we have today, where the commander in chief is the topic of virtually every conversation about politics.

This is madness — because while we may think of the president having virtually unlimited power, the scope of his authority remains tightly constrained by Article II of the Constitution. Whether we realize it or not, the nation’s basic law invests most power to do things with Congress, not the president. By obsessing so endlessly about the president, we are basically just fussing over manners, rather than real issues that the government can actually do something about. We are like a car forever stuck in first gear, unable to get up to full speed. If we were serious about the issues facing our country (and, to be blunt, I do not think we are), the first word out of our mouth would be Congress.

I see three possible outcomes over the long run. First, we continue to persist in our delusion that the president is some kind of superman, continue to invest disproportionate time and effort in obsessing over him, and continue to leave important problems to linger while we allow symbols to drive us further and further around the bend.

Second, we invest the president with a governing power commensurate with the psychological hold he has over us — to divest ourselves of our republican character, and embrace the absolutist monarchy we the people have been flirting with since the Great Depression.

Third, we return to the Founding notion that the people, acting through the representatives in Congress assembled, should govern, and that the job of the president is to function as Hamilton sketched out — provide for domestic tranquility, defend against foreign attacks, ensure the steady administration of the laws, and offer a temperate voice to check petty factions.

I know which one I prefer. But I am guessing that for the next two years (maybe six), we are going to get TRUMP TRUMP TRUMP TRUMP.

Jay Cost is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the Center for Faith and Freedom at Grove City College.


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