21st Century Institutions: the U.S. Presidency

Donald Trump is not the first U.S. President to be elected in the 21st Century, and the odds are he’s not going to be be the last.* He does seem likely, however, to go down in history as the century’s most characteristic one, at least as things look now, twenty years into the accursed opening maneuvers of its history-making engines.

President Trump himself is undeniably one of those engines, a steam-powered anomaly in an era increasingly lit up at night by the output from solar panels, wind turbines, and lithium ion batteries. It would probably be easier, and it would certainly be more pleasant, to write about the American Presidency without mentioning the Donald, but since he does seem to represent some sort of numinous final stage in the rot that’s been eating away at the office since 1945, there’s no credible way to avoid dealing with him in all his radiantly decadent glory.

Back in 2011, in snarking at the dozen or so GOP presidential candidates of the time, I called Newt Gingrich the Dorian Gray of the Republican Party. By the middle of 2016, as candidate Trump’s arsenal of creepy facial expressions began its final assault on our international media landscape, I realized that Newt had been a mere pretender. Not even Oscar Wilde himself could have imagined the world we were now living in, a world in which the real-life equivalent of his fictional character actually preferred having the evolving portrait of his depravity visible to everyone and his dog.

When January, 20, 2017 finally did arrive, it was even weirder than usual for a Presidential Inauguration Day. Most of the political class and its media pilot fish were still hung over from the excesses of the election in November. To their momentarily everlasting astonishment, it seemed, Trump had actually managed somehow to get himself elected President, and was standing there now, live in front of the assembled cameras, taking the oath of office. Oh. My. God. The nuclear football in the possession of a sociopathic, blowhard hotel developer! Sackcloth and ashes! Baskets of deplorables! Facebook and Russians! Blah, blah, blah.

Trump himself was soon to be busy elsewhere in Washington. Once he’d gotten the rug swapped out in the Oval Office, had more Trump-suitable golden drapes hung above its windows, and settled his very stable genius behind the Resolute desk, he got down at last to the real work: redecorating the American political landscape with a stunning array of bagmen, bootlickers, generals and ex-generals, racist Dixie irredentists, religious fanatics, voodoo economists, firearms fetishists, Fox News ressentimentistes, rust belt coal rollers, libertarians looking for a hill to die on, and his own children. In 2020, I continue to wonder: is there really anyone left in the United States who still believes that this was all some sort of diabolical accident?

No, there isn’t. And no, it definitely wasn’t. Most of the electorate understands very well that this train wreck of an election was no accident, whether they voted for Donald Trump or not. And yet, amazing as it is to contemplate, our luck has held once again. Despite the best efforts of Trump and his merry band of magatrumpistas, the United States seems unlikely to become a failed state during his reign, no matter how diligent its political class is at helping him carve one out of the complex patrimony of the U.S. Constitution.

If we can somehow manage to ignore all the present din and idiocy, what is undeniable about the history which has led us to Trump in the White House is that already by the latter half of the 1970s, the international economic order set up by the western allies following the defeat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan was becoming alarmingly unstable. Contrary to the arrogant predictions of our so-called foreign policy experts, the economic restoration of our defeated enemies had not, in fact, bound them in perpetuity to political alliances dominated by the United States. China was not, in fact, going to be permanently denied the economic and political deference due it as a society which embraced more than 18% of the world’s population. Even the lesser nations of the world would not, in fact, continue to fear being denied a place at the trough of American largesse, especially as there came to be less and less in it for them.

The election of Donald Trump is far more, I think, than a macabre trick that the rubes in the MAGA hats have played on themselves. It’s also the clearest demonstration we’re ever likely to get that prominent members of the American political class are not as savvy as they make themselves out to be. Simply put, they’ve failed to prepare the American people for the historical metamorphosis which has brought the postwar Pax Americana to an end. Even more simply put, bearing humiliating witness to a Trump in the White House is the price they’re paying for that failure. Whether they realize it or not, the longer they keep propping up the status quo, the higher that price will be. After four years of the Trump administration, let alone eight years, I’m pretty sure the vig alone will wind up bankrupting them.

While it may be true that even in the hands of a Donald Trump the U.S. Presidency remains as remarkable an institution as it ever has been, it’s definitely true that it’s never been a less transparent one, especially with respect to the exact nature of its formal and informal powers. To give just one example, there are 17 agencies in the so-called United States Intelligence Community, which, according to the latest figures available to the public, have granted top secret security clearances to a total of over 900,000 people. Meanwhile, President Trump is reported to have restricted his daily security briefing to two pages, while supposedly watching four hours of Fox News a day. What reason is there for anyone to believe that he’s actually in charge of what is going on in these agencies? Who can predict the impact that such calculated ignorance will have on our national security, or our foreign policy in general? Certainly someone is in charge — many someones more likely — but I doubt that any of them are significantly more accountable to the President, at least on a day-to-day basis, than they are to the public at large.

Admittedly it’s hard enough to run an effective federal administration with a full complement of politically competent policy experts, and a chain of responsibility that extends to the lowest level of the executive branch. You certainly can’t run one effectively with a staff consisting of your daughter, your son-in-law, Sean Hannity, Sheldon Adelson, a rota of retired generals, lobbyists and golf partners, and an assortment of idiot yes-people whose only significant achievement is the byzantine complexity of their self-abasement. The country is too large, its political and economic infrastructure too complex, to be managed entirely from the top down; the responsibilities of the Federal Government are too extensive, and its interlocking bureaucracies too encrusted with decades of turf wars, interagency rivalries, and deviant ideological agendas to respond competently to even the most intelligently conceived policy directives.

The bottom line, I’m afraid, is that the U.S. Constitution is showing its age, and so is the U.S. Presidency. I think it’s significant that both President Trump and three of his Democratic Party challengers for the office in 2020 are over 70 years old. I remember when we used to laugh at the infirmities of the gerontocracy under Brezhnev in the Soviet Union, and Mao in China. These days, it looks as though the laugh is on us.

*YMMV. I have to say, though, that if I were a bookie, I’d be reluctant to offer the current Vegas line on that bet, especially if I had to lay off any significant amount of it. That’s the kind of move that might just wind up getting you your legs broken — or worse — even when most of your ordinary day-to-day tormentors would be running around shrieking and waving their hands, looking for a window to jump out of.