Monday, November 21, 2016

Trump and the Myth of the American Presidency

Most political scientists view the American political system as a dense set of interlocking rules, institutions, and actors that interact in complicated and ever-evolving ways. This web of power derives much of its complexity from the fact that the United States is, distinctively, both a separation-of-powers system and a federal system. Our politics not only encompasses many different independent positions and levels of authority but also provides multiple access points for individuals and groups outside the formal structure of the government—including advocacy organizations, media sources, and mobilized citizens—to exert influence over its operations. Even scholars who devote their careers to studying one element of this system—Congress, courts, voters, interest groups, and so forth—must constantly account for the ways in which their subject of interest is affected by the other components of the system.

American citizens acquire in grade school the familiar factual knowledge that their government has three separate branches and a federalist structure. In practice, however, popular attention to the subject of politics focuses overwhelmingly on the office of the presidency and the individuals who hold it—or who seek it during a drawn-out campaign process that lasts for nearly half of the presidential term. Citizens have invested the presidency with meaning and expectations that far exceed the capacity of even its most resourceful inhabitants to fully satisfy, ignoring both the very real limitations of the president's ability to implement major change and the key roles played by other political actors and by the institutional framework of the constitutional system itself.

The campaign that just concluded only further widened the chasm separating the actual presidency from its role in the American imagination. Popular and media attention focused on the race to the White House to the exclusion of all other electoral competition; candidates for the Senate and other important offices only received national press coverage when they said or did something that related to one or both of the presidential nominees. To a greater extent than any candidate in memory, Donald Trump portrayed the presidency as a position of unrestricted power from which he could not only impose sweeping change on national and world politics—singlehandedly bringing back the steel industry from overseas, building a border wall and forcing Mexico to pay for it—but even reverse unwelcome trends in American culture ("When I'm president, we're going to say Merry Christmas again!")

Hillary Clinton was by contrast relatively cautious about over-promising on policy and keen to avoid appearances of grandiosity, reflecting both her own instincts and her understanding of the limitations of the presidency as well as its power. When discussing this or that political issue, Clinton would frequently pledge if elected to do "everything I can" to address the concerns of her audience—a promise to try rather than a promise to succeed.

Yet Clinton, too, ultimately wound up running a campaign that treated the presidency more as an abstract symbol than a position of executive responsibility. She attempted to benefit from popular disapproval of Trump's personal behavior by arguing that he would be a poor role model for the nation's children and would represent a victory for the forces of bigotry and misogyny. Democrats and Republicans came to share the view that the 2016 election did not merely present a choice between two very different visions for what America should be, but forced the electorate to determine which of two possible futures the nation would indeed have—with one path permanently selected and the other foreclosed.

Since the election less than two weeks ago, the nation has experienced an eruption of racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, and anti-Muslim speech and behavior—all presumably fueled by the perception that Trump's ascension to the presidency represents a larger impending transformation of American society (notwithstanding the narrowness of Trump's victory nor his failure to receive a plurality of the national popular vote). These incidents have not been limited to the Trump-friendly regions of the nation; even those of us who live in the "deep blue" precincts of the metropolitan coasts have experienced the same trend. The presumption behind much of this behavior is that America under Trump will look fundamentally different from America under Obama or (hypothetically) Clinton.

As some of his most ardent supporters envision a wholesale change in the social order, Trump himself has spent the same two weeks reckoning with the limits of the office he is poised to occupy. Evidence has surfaced of a rocky transition process and a president-elect who seems more interested in looking after his business interests and engaging in amateur television criticism than in staffing the executive branch. He has also begun to walk back some of his key campaign promises; anyone actually expecting Trump to immediately begin mass deportations, build a border wall, or throw Hillary Clinton in jail once he assumes office is about to be very disappointed.

Most scholars agree that the modern presidency rewards preparation. The most successful presidents have prioritized hiring highly competent subordinates who share a common policy agenda, have placed them at key positions of power, and have moved quickly to take advantage of the honeymoon period at the start of a new president's term, when his popularity and political influence are usually at their peak. It is not at all clear that Trump is equipped to begin his term in office two short months from now with the institutional capacity of the executive branch running at full speed.

We are left, then, with the prospect of an ever-widening divide between the growing symbolic power of the presidency in the American popular imagination and the stubborn reality that the president is merely one element of a political system that often resists bending to his will. All presidents have chafed against the limitations of the office, but Trump's combination of rhetorical ambition and practical inattentiveness presents a particular challenge to the new administration. The news media, which has contributed greatly to propagating the myth of the all-powerful presidency, will reliably cover American politics for the next four years almost exclusively through a Trump-centered lens, which will have the effect of further magnifying his failures as well as his successes. If the president cannot even claim control over Congress and the bureaucracy, what are his chances of making us all say Merry Christmas every December?