The president really has two jobs. The first that has received is that of his managerial role, his responsibility for handling the nation’s affairs. Coupled with that is his role of personifying the nation and becoming thereby the unifying factor that holds us together. It its this dual role that makes the presidency so fascinating intellectually. Many problems arise from assigning double duty to the president, and all of them flow from the fact that the two roles are mutually exclusive. To sustain his position as a symbol of unity the president should keep strictly out of politics and out of management of the government. To manage the affairs of government, the president must decide between competing claimants for social and economic advantage. Such decisions cannot be made without dividing people and creating enmities, which blotches the unifying symbol. An astute president can walk a tightrope but for a considerable period of time, but in the end, he cannot win for losing.
pp. 13-14, The Twilight of the Presidency.
I’d never thought about the curious nature of the presidency’s dual role until reading The Once and Future King two years ago. F.H. Buckley argued in that volume that crown government – that is, rule by a monarchical executive — had effectively reestablished itself in the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States in the persons of their prime ministers and president, respectively. Buckley noted that the American president’s combined offices — Head of State and Head of Government — have the unfortunate consequence of blunting a lot of criticism by way of automatic deference for his Leader of the Republic aura.
How might the constitutional convention approached a two-office executive, having a President and prime minister, so to speak? The Speaker of the House is the closest thing we have to a prime minister, but the powers of government were deliberately divided so that Congress could not run amok over people’s liberties as had the House of Commons It is incredible to think that once Congress’ power was feared; the last time it was a threat to the presidency was during Andrew Johnson’s administration. But let us suppose the convention was dominated by men who wanted a robust Congress and an impotent president, who made the Speaker the governmental manager and relegated to the office of president mere ritual roles: the Guardian of the Constitution, perhaps, who made the public holiday speeches and sometimes publicly censured Congress for violations of rights. Later on, during the Progressive period of the 19th-20th century, it is plausible to think of the office being filled by a man who was less interested in natural law and declared himself instead the Guardian of the People, scolding Congress for not doing enough to protect farmers against the railroad.
No political system endures without change, and I do not know how long our present scheme will endure. Certainly with the current president elect we are at an interesting moment: we have a man who went to war with his own party establishment, who was elected over their joint rebukes and sneers, a man who has little regard for precedence and propriety. It’s extraordinary. Has a shift of power ever been this contentious in American history? The closest I can think of is Truman refusing to speak to Eisenhower when they rode in a car together. Has an assuming POTUS ever entered the office with teeth bared, avowedly hostile to most of the people on the Hill and to the corporate media? Have the FBI and CIA ever been this involved so close to an election and transition? I confess that there are moments when I seriously believe we are witnessing the active collapse of what’s left of the Republic. I speak as someone who is enormously entertained by Trump’s contempt for the media, because I, too, loathe it; ditto for his attitudes toward D.C and the Republican-Democratic establishment — but as much as I like the idea of the power-caste being so dramatically spited, I’m a student of the universe. Strong personalities with a populist base, going to the mattresses with a corrupt establishment…it never ends well, whether the personality is modern (Hitler or Castro) or historical (Caesar, Napoleon). This story never ends well. Human beings cannot handle that much power and adulation. Even the adulation is dangerous: look at the many Hollywood celebrities who have destroyed their lives, reveling in license and attention.
Unfortunately, I don’t know that there was an alternate ending. Clinton would not have been the progressive her fans wanted her to be. She was a fully-vetted member of the power caste, with no career outside the walls of public rule since her teen years. I suspect she would have been predictably but moderately abusive (in the same fashion as Bush & Obama), but remembered most for being the wife of a former president and the first female executive. Executive power would have definitely increased under her stead, unless she provoked Russia into a global war, in which case we’d all be dead with glowing bones and the power of the presidency would have been a nonissue. In the case of Trump, though, who knows? He might so unnerve Congress that they attempt to check him with law, or become more powerful through sheer will to action.
The problem with this idea of a president who stands as a unitive figure is that the United States itself so divided. Is there anyone who can count on respect or affection from everybody? Fred Rogers, maybe, and he’s left us.( Readers Digest suggested that Tom Hanks is the most trusted man in America, which…I completely get. ) One example that particularly concerns me is identity politics, which promotes tribalism and thus counter tribalism. Whenever there is an overtly defined us and them, hostility erupts: even if the Us begins as a genuinely violated party, their constant pushing against the mass provokes defensiveness and thus creates a more solidified Them, and the two then feed one another’s flames. This is why I think the Catholics are onto something when they make solidarity a keystone in social conflict resolution: we must approach one another in charity, as neighbors, and work something out together. We can’t just fight and claim victories from another side, not and remain a nation. On Friday, for instance, D.C. will be filled with marches — media spectacles that may grow violent. Violence will then beget violence, everyone will choose sides, etc — turning and turning in the widening gyre, that sort of thing.
It is my hope that after Friday, once the current president is hit with the sheer amount of work expected of him, that he will be so overwhelmed that things will quiet down. I can’t bet on it, but it’s a possibility: that chair in the oval office destroys men. Even Trump’s personality may not be able to handle the weight of responsibility bearing down on him there.
Future excerpts from this book won’t turn into essays, I promise — but for all of my wariness and cynicism regarding D.C, there is still a big part of me that believes in Washington and the Republic…and that part of me, the citizen of not just a town but a republic, had to ponder some things.