On Inauguration Day, a good time to curb our presidentialism
As a self-professed conservative with no party affiliation, I join with my progressive friends in viewing the approaching end of the Trump presidency as cause for celebration. To quote a notable piece of presidential oratory, “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.” Let us hope so.
I do not wish to offer my own entry into the ongoing competition to describe just how execrable Trump has been. My thesaurus (Roget’s International, 5th edition) contains literally dozens of synonyms for bad, ranging from “nasty” and “malodorous,” to “dangerous” and “evil.” In one way or another, almost all of them apply to President Trump and his administration.
That said, perhaps unlike some of my progressive friends, my expectations of the incoming Biden administration presiding over a Great American Restoration are muted.
As Joe Biden prepares to take the Oath of Office as our 46th President, I wish him well. I am confident that his intentions are honorable. Unlike his predecessor, he takes office having already acquired considerable experience in governing. Unlike his predecessor who seemingly viewed the presidency less as a job than as a performance venue, Biden will tend seriously to his duties. He will apply himself. He will work hard.
But let’s face it: At 78, he is an old man. With advancing age comes a loss of energy, memory, and intellectual acuity. To defend myself against charges of ageism, let me just say that I speak from personal experience.
There is also the fact that as a career politician, Biden never figured as a candidate for inclusion in a revised and expanded edition of Profiles in Courage. Most writers are hacks. Most ballplayers are journeymen. Most art is forgettable and most artists quickly forgotten. Few politicians ever leave a legacy worth remembering. Over the course of several decades serving in the U.S. Senate, Biden has never numbered among those few.
In 1957, a Senate committee chaired by John F. Kennedy recommended Henry Clay (Ky.), John C. Calhoun (S.C.), Daniel Webster (Mass.), Robert Taft (Ohio), and Robert La Follette, Sr. (Wis.) for inclusion in a senatorial “hall of fame.” Were such a committee to convene today, it would not add Joe Biden to the ranks of senatorial demigods.
No doubt our 46th president will represent a distinct improvement over our 45th. But it does not fall within his capability to expiate the sins besetting our nation. To my knowledge, no one has improved on Martin Luther King’s description of those sins: the “giant triplets” of racism, materialism, and militarism.
Among the many baffling aspects of political tradition, surely the strangest must be the widely held conviction that the occupant of the Oval Office determines the fate of the country and of the planet. Call it presidentialism.
Presidentialism is the Big Lie of American politics. It is a far bigger lie than all the middling lies that Donald Trump told over the course of his four years in the White House.
Every time I hear a U.S. president referred to as “the most powerful man in the world,” I am reminded of that lie. After Biden is inaugurated today, let’s ask Mitch McConnell if our new president is the most powerful man in the world. Or we might pose the same question to Xi Jinping or Jeff Bezos or — heck, why not — Pope Francis.
The last days of the Trump presidency should suffice to refute the Big Lie. The supposedly most powerful man in the world attempted to overturn the results of the November 2020 election and failed. In a despicable act, hooligans trashed the Capitol. They never came close to overturning the Constitutional order.
Presidentialism is American Exceptionalism transferred to the arena of politics. It is a vast and dangerous delusion. The sooner we wake up to that fact the better for our democracy.
Although 2020 was a rotten year, our Republic has survived worse. Trump’s departure from office is cause for celebration. But Dr. King’s “giant triplets” remain, posing a greater threat to our democracy than Trump ever did even at his most devious. Should we be serious about addressing that threat, we must look not to the White House but to ourselves.