Andrew Cohen is a journalist, professor of journalism at Carleton University and author of Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours That Made History. He covered Washington for The Globe and Mail from 1997 to 2001.
On the last day of January, shortly after the United States Senate declined to call witnesses in the impeachment trial of Donald Trump, Jon Meacham went on national television with something to say.
Mr. Meacham is one of this country’s decorated historians, a savvy interpreter of events with an owlish authority. Unlike talking heads given to the big declaration, he scrupulously avoids generalities and superlatives.
So, when Mr. Meacham told MSNBC that Mr. Trump “is the most politically powerful president in American history” and “functionally a monarch,” it was jarring. That’s because, at some level, we fear it’s true.
With the trial ending in acquittal on Wednesday, it isn’t hard to see the President of the United States as a de facto monarch. Perhaps a constitutional one, with some legislative, administrative and judicial checks on his authority. But a sovereign nonetheless, animated by impulse, anger, hyperbole, vanity and revenge, too.
Before impeachment, Mr. Trump was a strongman unfazed by convention, unmoored by law and unencumbered by decorum. His self-described “perfect telephone call” – asking the President of Ukraine to open a corruption investigation into Joe and Hunter Biden, in exchange for releasing U.S. military assistance – was why Democrats in the House of Representatives charged him with abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
After impeachment, Mr. Trump remains a strongman unfazed by convention, unmoored by law and unencumbered by decorum. Now, though, he has beaten the rap (on a vote strictly along party lines other than dissenting Republican Mitt Romney, a new moral tribune). Mr. Trump remains largely unaccountable as long as the Republicans control the Senate and he controls the Republicans. This he does, masterfully, as puppeteer-in-chief.
Having been caught, Mr. Trump will not be chastened. Rather than repent, he will repeat. Like any good card-shark, he will double down on the bet that nothing can stop him now. In this he has licence from naïfs such as Maine Senator Susan Collins ("the President has learned from this case,” she says). But why change now? This President has been acting brazenly for three years: invoking executive privilege to defy congressional oversight; declaring a national emergency to build a medieval wall on the border with Mexico; dismantling a regime of industrial, commercial and environmental regulation “choking” growth; pardoning friends, sycophants and special pleaders.
If he wants to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Rush Limbaugh, who traffics in conspiracy, he can. If he wants to use profanity in public and mock the heroic John McCain, he can. If he wants to call the media an “enemy of the people,” he can. To this self-proclaimed “very stable genius” with thickening royal jelly, criticism is lèse-majesté.
Behold, then, King Donald. With the economy purring, his popularity holding, his party cowering and his rivals sputtering, this is Mr. Trump’s moment. Perversely, his show-trial has carried the accidental president to a new, higher station: America’s modern monarch.
As any child in the United States knows, this country was born in opposition to King George III. The framers designed a system of government – the legislature, the judiciary and the presidency – with checks and balances. Such was antipathy toward the Crown that George Washington was hailed for renouncing it. As historian Clinton Rossiter wrote: “It has been said of Washington that he could have been a king but chose to be something more exalted: the first elected head of the first truly free government.”
Americans have always worried about presidents overreaching. After all, they’re already heads of state with a broad suite of powers. Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War. Franklin Roosevelt tried to “pack” the Supreme Court and interned Japanese-Americans. Richard Nixon covered up Watergate.
Their critics probably called them tyrants. Mr. Trump sees himself in Andrew Jackson, the country’s seventh president. Mr. Trump made an early pilgrimage to Jackson’s home outside Nashville, the Hermitage, and hangs his portrait in the Oval Office. “Old Hickory” owned slaves, killed Native Americans and clashed with Congress. To some, he was a populist. To others, he was “King Andrew I.”
As biographer H.W. Brands argues, there is no parallel between Mr. Trump and Jackson (a victorious general and a seasoned politician, self-made and deeply flawed). But King Donald savours the comparison as much as he does imperial flourishes. This President enjoys the perquisites of office, as do most presidents, from the White House (“very elegant”) to Air Force One, which ferries him, on command, everywhere. He stages a grand military parade on July 4 and refers to “my generals.” His chaotic West Wing gives new meaning to “palace intrigue.”
Like a sovereign, he trades in bombast and braggadocio. He has the swagger of Mussolini (swelling chest, jutting chin) and the ignorance and detachment of Kaiser Wilhelm II. He is neither, of course. But that doesn’t stop him musing about the Trump dynasty (with Ivanka as heir apparent) while his courtiers talk of a third term, as if constitutional term limits are irrelevant. Maybe they are. Michael Moore and Bill Maher, both with large followings, insist that if Mr. Trump loses narrowly this year, he will cry “fraud” and refuse to leave the White House. Seriously.
When Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the historian and presidential adviser, published The Imperial Presidency in 1973, he worried about the expansion of executive power in the nuclear age. His reservation was the president’s unfettered ability to wage war without the consent of Congress. Another concern was swelling federal agencies, executive appointments and the rising federal budget.
While Mr. Nixon’s forced resignation quieted the debate, it has returned. The growth of the national security state – as well as using presidential power to address energy, immigration and the environment – have strengthened the office. It’s not Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency any more, much as this president recalls Father Knows Best.
At his trial, Mr. Trump’s defenders argued that as president, he can do largely what he wants. If it is in the national interest, it is not a crime. Alan Dershowitz peddled this, falsely, and the Republicans embraced it, slavishly.
If one thing defines Mr. Trump, it is his towering confidence. He never apologizes for flouting rules and denying norms. That’s how he can blithely resist demands from Congress to summon witnesses and release documents. He simply stonewalls.
The Democrats didn’t take him to court because it would take too long. They chose impeachment instead. Given the assault on their constitutional oversight, did they have any choice? Critics say they should have kept investigating. They note that impeachment has barely moved public opinion, although a near majority wanted Mr. Trump removed.
The danger is that he has so cavalierly and loudly dismissed his impeachment (“a hoax! a witch hunt!”) that he has drained its power to shock. Publicly, Mr. Trump treats it like a presidential parking ticket. This is the insouciance of a monarch.
Privately, though, impeachment for him is a humiliation, a stigma, the first line in his obituary. Says Nancy Pelosi, whose hand Mr. Trump refused to shake before his reality-show State of the Union Address: “Whatever happens, he has been impeached forever.” He will wear it this fall in an election likely to be a referendum on his presidency.
In the meantime, Mr. Trump is untouchable as long as he remains Marshal Pétain to the Vichy Republicans. It begs the question: Are there any checks on Absolute Trump? In fact, several.
The Democrats control the House, retaining the power to investigate and subpoena, as well as to pass bills. Mr. Trump will get nothing through, limiting his first-term legislative legacy to taxes and trade.
The courts constrain the President, sometimes, although he is changing their ideological balance. Civil society remains mobilized. The Deep State constrains Mr. Trump, too, through whistle-blowers and bureaucrats, who presumably leaked the contents of John Bolton’s book. The liberal media acts as watchdog (as the conservative media, led by Fox News, acts as guard dog). Mr. Trump’s “failing” New York Times has five million digital subscribers and Rachel Maddow is queen of MSNBC.
Ultimately, the strongest check on the President is the people. Public opinion still remains against Mr. Trump, narrowly though not inevitably. It’s too early to know. But he understands instinctively the anxiety of his rural, conservative, less-educated constituency, and exploits it shamelessly.
King Donald offers his loyal subjects bread, circuses and a magical kingdom of a generation ago – a border wall, a travel ban, tax cuts, protectionism, political incorrectness, deregulation, conservative judges and the red-meat rhetoric of God, guns and the rights of the unborn. If he is re-elected in November, he will be emboldened as no president before. He will be free to try to reshape the high court, withdraw from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, dismantle social security, shrink government, abolish regulation and end abortion.
In that new, uncharted United States, with his army of loyalists turned royalists cheering his coronation, King Donald, unbound, will reign for four more years – and perhaps beyond.
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