Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

The Ignoble Presidency

The danger of an imperial presidency has usually been exaggerated; the peril lies not in its power but in the character of its person.
February 13, 2020
The Ignoble Presidency
(Photo by Noam Galai/WireImage)

In the modern era, the specter of the imperial presidency has stirred the most excitable—what Hamilton called, in Federalist No. 1, “over-scrupulous”—anxiety at various points along the political spectrum. Beginning with the Vietnam war and gathering special force in the post-9/11 era, the public has been encouraged by the national elite to fear nearly every exercise of executive power taken in defense of the nation’s interests or against the enemies of civilization.

Three years into the Trump presidency offers a welcome opportunity to render judgment against this widespread but exaggerated fear, which has helped to conceal more grave dangers in the highest office of state.

First, let’s concede that a certain suspicion of executive power is proper and fitting. The American presidency is a fiercely powerful office, as one might expect given the awesome responsibilities under its remit. However, such immense powers present a potentand abidingtemptation for the occupant of the office to abuse the public trust for private advantage.

Nonetheless, the view of the abuse of presidential power in recent decades was generally not healthy. President Obama did not garner much criticism for his rash executive unilateralism in domestic affairs—most infamously over immigration policy. Nor was an alarm sounded regarding the frequently accumulated mischief of copious executive departments and agencies empowered by Congress but for which it has delegated discretion to the White House.

The pervasive paranoia about the presidency has rather centered on its constitutional supremacy in the realm of foreign and defense policy, and its more general role as the custodian of American eminence in the world. (Remember, it was the CIA’s drone program that, in 2013, brought Senator Paul to the floor of Congress for his absurd 13-hour filibuster to alert the public about the danger of Americans being killed on American soil by America’s intelligence agencies.) Hoping to stifle the temptation toward American Caesarism, some of the brightest conservatives even expressly sought to pursue a legislative political strategy at the expense of an executive one.

It is generally conceded today that the immediate peril of imperial habits overtaking the executive has receded, if not having been overblown since Patrick Henry opposed the constitution on grounds that it permitted the president to “squint towards monarchy.” Similarly, political arguments to demote the import of the presidency have not aged well.

Against this endless hand-wringing about monarchical usurpation, a new book shows that another threat lurked in the nation’s highest office. In Unmaking the Presidency: Donald Trump’s War on the World’s Most Powerful Office, Susan Hennessy and Benjamin Wittes of Lawfare make an incisive contribution to the literature on the Trump White House, concisely dissecting the incumbent’s grave and gathering misconduct in office.

Unmaking the Presidency shows convincingly that Trump has abused his power without exceeding the formal boundaries of his authority. This is a thorny fact for some in the loyal opposition to stomach, especially those accustomed to thinking that “modern presidents, clad in the armor of imperial grandeur, are most tolerable when nervous.”

A better principle, put on stark display in the Trump era, is that presidents are most tolerable when public-spirited. For despite Trump’s naked contempt for constitutional propriety, the more disturbing truth, as Hennessey and Wittes demonstrate, is that “he has abused the power that the presidency clearly possesses.” Put another way, Trump stains the office not as the result of its imperial nature but because of his own.

This insistence on the importance of character among public servants used to be a core principle of the Republican party, which has now abandoned it in service to Trump’s depredations. This is the Republican revolution that will most confound historians, even more than its support of a president who has jettisoned free trade and alienated or abandoned allies abroad.

Although Trump is unfit for command in every dimension, he has not behaved with conspicuous impulsiveness in wielding American power. Where he has been entirely unrestrained is in his reflexive conflation of personal interest with the nation’s interest. It has oft been noted that Trump has never in his life allowed himself to be refashioned by something outside of himself. In consequence, he fails to grasp the essence of patriotic principle, that in a republic there is such a thing as a cause higher than—and perhaps at odds with—one’s own personal interests. Little wonder that instead of venerating the military valor of John McCain, he has felt compelled to mock and degrade it.

Ridding the office of its monarchical trappings, if that is indeed what Trump has done, has apparently persuaded many Americans that the executive may indulge his most destructive whims while neglecting his most solemn duties. For this reason alone, it would seem, the institutional wreckage in the space of a single term ought to occasional bouts of self-reproach among the staunchest opponents of the imperial presidency.

The attention given over the years to the hazards of a Leviathan unbound should never have taken precedence over the ethical quality of the Leviathan. Fears of a president unconstrained by law occluded the prospect of a president unconstrained by something even more vital: custom, and honor. Thus while a large faction exhibited vigilance against a president exercising his constitutional power to the very hilt, and then some, there was no comparable faction—at least not one of principle—underlining the fact that the executive office was properly too large to entrust to such a small man.

In a word, the all-consuming focus of our political and intellectual energies was power when all along it should have been character. Perhaps the Democratic Party, which in the not-too-distant past has contributed mightily to public confusion about this vital issue, can see fit to address it in the awful light shed by the president they hope to dislodge.

Brian Stewart

Brian Stewart is a New York-based political writer. Follow him on Twitter @bstewart1776.