The presidencies of the twentyteens have shown us both the limits of the presidency for a majoritarian progressive politics as well as the beginnings of the dangers of the presidency when wielded by a minority reactionary politics.
In December, Vanity Fair’s Bess Levin mockingly reported that “Trump Can’t Believe No One’s Thrown a Parade in His Honor.” Several months later, that characterization was substantiated by Trump himself, as he ordered the Pentagon to parade the U.S. Armed Forces down Pennsylvania Avenue.
Too many Americans continue to pretend that they don’t recognize Trump’s behavior. He treats the country the same way he treats women. Despite plural support for impeachment, American institutions have yet to assemble the necessary determination to remove Trump from our civic life. In time they may. Yet once done, will impeachment prove sufficient remedy for the ills the presidency has brought democracy?
The problems of executive power are far older than the Constitution of 1787. Fearing tyranny, the drafters made clear their intent that Congress, not the President, would oversee the military in times other than war, and that the U.S. armed forces would consist primarily of the regular militia. Executives like Trump were the stuff of their nightmares, so much so that Benjamin Franklin as well as many others not invited to the drafting party opposed the very establishment of the presidency.
Since its founding the United States has experienced presidents of various attitudes and capacities. In times of crisis members of the public have raised the question of executive power. Yet despite Richard Nixon’s best efforts, it may be that it is the last two presidents who have made this question most urgent.
You read that correctly. If Donald Trump is the antithesis of the capable and virtuous president imagined by the proponents of the presidency, Barack Obama would seem to be in most respects the presidency’s prospective thesis. Between the two of them, we have in one decade seen much of the worst and the best the presidency has to offer. Obama’s political opponents - and I was one - often agreed that he exhibited critical leadership qualities, among these poise, judgment, mental acuity, charisma, and empathy. Even some of Trump’s supporters would agree that these words don’t well characterize the current president. Obama was elected to office with a popular mandate and enjoyed majority support for most of his presidency. Trump has always been opposed by significant majorities.
Yet the lessons of the Obama and Trump presidencies lead to the same conclusion. Obama was elected as part of a progressive wave that he himself helped build. Despite his mandate, Obama’s presidency carried on the military aggression, human rights abuses, fossil fuel extraction, and anti-worker trade policies of the previous administrations. Trump took office in the face of majority opposition. Despite this opposition (as well as apparent chaos inside the White House) the Trump presidency has begun proving effective in delivering policies sought by the reactionary rich and the organized racism of resentment.
The presidencies of the twentyteens have shown us both the limits of the presidency for a majoritarian progressive politics as well as the beginnings of the dangers of the presidency when wielded by a minority reactionary politics. Advocates for greater democracy in the United States must not ignore these examples. And while it is certainly true that the problems of American democracy are complex, requiring more than formal structural reforms, to recognize their complexity should not require ignoring the necessity of enacting such reforms.
The abolition of the presidency is a difficult proposition, and raises questions about alternatives. Yet because these are difficult times, the engines of constitutional change are already in motion throughout the political landscape, as seen in the progressive amendment campaigns to abolish corporate personhood, get money out of politics, guarantee equal rights for women, and protect voting rights, as well as in the conservative amendment campaign for a balanced budget. So long as such fundamental questions are being addressed, let presidential abolition be among them.