Magazine February 24, 2020, Issue

Has the Presidency Become Impossible?

(Roman Genn)
No, but it is too hard for the incumbent

At the conclusion of his 1994 book The American Presidency, Forrest McDonald, historian and occasional contributor to NR, surveyed the ways in which the job had become impossible. Presidents are “held totally responsible for situations that one is helpless to manage”; they lack “contact with ordinary humans”; they are “fair prey for every manner of vilification”; their inescapable tasks are often “self-defeating” (McDonald cited image-making: necessary to accumulate political and moral clout, yet apt to take on a life of its own). Their health suffers, and they die at younger ages than they once did. Some job.

Yet Donald Trump, a novice with no information, limited intelligence, and bad character, has held it for over three years without catastrophe, and may hold it for four more. Is the job easier than we thought? 

Trump of course has strengths. “Limited” intelligence does not mean none. He is a genius at commanding attention, a skill he has proven over decades in an array of media — tabloid culture, television, Twitter, the podium. He was never a master builder (that was his father Fred); instead he is a master persona-builder. 

Two other Trump strengths are more surprising. For a man so given to bluster, he shows considerable caution. His default foreign policy is not to put American troops in harm’s way. He waxed Russian auxiliaries in Syria, then pulled out. His most aggressive move has been a drone strike (admittedly quite a strike). There may come times when he will have to do more, but for now inaction has served him well. 

He has also, for someone thought to be impulsive, shown consistency on certain large issues. “Honest” crooked pols are defined as those who stay bought. Trump stays with those whom he has bought. For a loose liver with a slow student’s understanding of the law (he thought judges signed bills), he has gratified religious and judicial conservatives alike. His stance on China began in protectionism, but he has executed something the Obama administration only talked about — the pivot of focus on our Pacific rival. 

His flaws come in two kinds: florid and not evident enough. Start with the latter. Trump is a lazy executive. He was not helped by having, as his earliest helpers, such a collection of tyros — Bannon, Kushner — and freaks — Omarosa, Scaramucci. Three years in, appointments are still unfilled. Trump himself does so little one can call the White House switchboard in the evening and have a fair chance of speaking to him or getting a next-day callback. This sounds like the subplot of a film about teenage stoners, yet I know one person who has done this successfully.

Trump’s one-on-one diplomacy is wishful. This is an occupational hazard of the presidency (George W. Bush thought he had looked into Putin’s soul), but Trump carries it to an extreme. Hence his warm words for so many of the world’s brutes. To him, it’s part of the art of the deal, the soft soap over the tight grip. But oh, the suds. In one case they have caused him real grief. The Obama-era intelligence community spent years looking for Russkies under Trump’s bed, a search prolonged, then scuttled, by Robert Mueller. But why would anyone suspect such a thing, or think that such a narrative could plausibly be spun? Could it be because of Trump’s gushing comments about Putin, and his testimonies to America’s moral equivalence? 

What most amazes and appalls are the noxious aspects of Trump’s personality, the aura of insecurity and mania that accompanies him, like a saint’s odor of sanctity. Trump’s great strength is that he is everywhere; his great weakness is that what is everywhere is him. His grotesqueries are so numerous they defy listing. The ones that are coming blot out the ones that just arrived.

Yet the ship of state slides on, the waves roll back from the bow. Unemployment is down, the stock market is up. Protection has hurt farmers, but they got a bailout. Trillions keep piling onto the deficit, but that was happening before Trump and will continue to happen after him, until — probably suddenly and painfully — it must stop happening. Every new president from a new party begins a process of rebranding the federal judiciary. The additions since 2017 are numerous and strong, and may even, if they take up Justice Thomas’s hints, take on stare decisis. There will be no big beautiful wall on the Mexican border, but thanks to diplomatic pressure illegal border crossings are down. Trump kisses some tyrants’ asses, but he defies others, and America remains a beacon still: Anti-regime students in Iran refuse to walk on the American flag, anti-Chinese demonstrators in Hong Kong wave American flags and posters with Trump’s head photoshopped on Rambo’s body. All these results Trump pushed for or approved, or they fell in his lap. So what is the problem?

The case for there being a problem is made by Stephen Knott, professor of national-security affairs at the United States Naval War College, in his most recent book, The Lost Soul of the American Presidency, which ends with a ferocious chapter on Trump. 

Donald Trump is everything critics of the popular presidency warned about — a demagogue who practices the “little arts of popularity,” a man lacking the attributes of a magnanimous soul, a purveyor of conspiracy theories, and a president incapable of distinguishing between himself and the office he temporarily holds. . . . The president panders to fears both real and imagined, boasts of himself as the answer to what ails the nation, and routinely overpromises. 

Knott fills in these broad strokes with a selection of Trump’s greatest hits, vulgar and vicious: arguing publicly about the size of his penis, accusing Ted Cruz’s father of plotting to kill JFK. For Knott, these are not personal foibles; they define a demagogue, a trainer, jockey, and ultimately captive of popular passions. Drawing on the example of George Washington and the writings of Alexander Hamilton, Knott argues that the president should be a symbol of the nation and an umpire over transient popular impulses. He has little trouble showing that Trump fails at both. His nationalism excludes half the country, and his MO is to stir passions up.

Knott short-circuits whataboutism by showing that Trump is the culmination of a long process. Knott admires a handful of presidents, some who are universal favorites — Washington, Lincoln — some slightly less favored — Ike, Reagan — some who were washouts — John Quincy Adams, Taft, Ford. Most occupants of the White House, in his telling, have been demagogues, some with compensating virtues, others without. Obama, W., and Clinton; Nixon, LBJ, and JFK; Truman, the Roosevelts, and Wilson — all get their licks. The rot goes back to the two Andrews (Johnson and Jackson), and ultimately to Thomas Jefferson.

What is Jefferson doing in this rogues’ gallery? Knott puts him there because Jefferson (and his right hand, James Madison) anticipated populist politics as we know it. They founded a political party based on grievance (theirs warred against what Madison called “the opulent”), and a political style requiring continuous attention to public opinion (a phrase, originally French, that Madison was one of the first writers in the English-speaking world to use). Jefferson and Madison were a number of things besides populists: aristocrats in their tastes, libertarians in their political philosophy. But they were always also, despite the contradictions, populists. “The moral sense, or conscience,” wrote Jefferson, “is as much a part of man as his leg or arm. It is given to all human beings in a stronger or weaker degree. . . . State a moral case to a ploughman and a professor. The former will decide it as well, and often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules.”

The sweep of Knott’s indictment suggests a weakness. His ideal president is a republican, a figure out of Roman, Renaissance, and 17th-century-English thought. The genius of America, however, is democratic. Jefferson believed this, which is why he and his allies prevailed. At the beginning of the 19th century the White House was occupied for 24 years by three Virginia neighbors, and their party survives today, the oldest in the world apart from England’s Tories. Even Knott’s heroes, Washington and Hamilton, the men the Jeffersonians replaced, were more democratic than Knott, or perhaps they themselves, realized. Hamilton wrote all his adult life for newspapers, the popular medium of the day. Washington, every inch the commander in chief, knew how to lead ordinary enlisted men.

Statesmen in a democratic age must master the arts of popularity. They don’t have to be little arts, because people are not always small-minded. It is doable, if hard. Too hard for the incumbent.

Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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