Trump did not invent the ‘imperial presidency,’ but he has debased it

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on November 1, 2020.

Lately I have been reminded of a conversation I had with myself, around this time back in 2016. Perhaps, I thought, Donald Trump would prove so ill-suited to the job of president and the task of governing that effectively nothing would be accomplished on his watch. Maybe — apart from four years of squandered potential — no permanent damage would be done; we could hope that all might return to normal.

Wow, was I wrong. In Tuesday’s genuinely pivotal election, Trump may or may not be given a second term (another lesson of 2016: predictions are a mug’s game and you’ll find none in this column.) But whether he stays or goes, he has changed the institution of the presidency itself — to say nothing of Congress, the Republican Party, the media, or any of the other, adjacent institutions whose presences were intended to act as checks and balances.

With the benefit of hindsight, it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that this would happen when Trump assumed the mantle of the “imperial presidency,” to borrow a phrase from the “historian of power” Arthur Schlesinger.

The imperial presidency is a perfect description of the office that Trump inherited, because the president is not only the elected leader of the nation and the head of government, but also the head of state.

This is the reason, for instance, that President Woodrow Wilson (as the only head of state present) had a higher chair than the Allied prime ministers at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919.

At home, Americans have long held a reverential view of the officeholder. They rise when he enters the room; they serenade him with “Hail to the Chief” and interrupt their regularly scheduled programming to bring breaking news of his every utterance.

Since the accession of President Trump, the other major institutions of American political life have struggled in response to the rot he has brought to the top. The Republican Party, for example, has opted for near-complete capitulation. At its convention, the Grand Old Party put forward no platform whatsoever. Oh, except for one promise: continued fealty to Donald Trump.

Sadly, there are no more mavericks in the senatorial caucus. Those that are left trip over each other in a mad scramble to win favour from the leader, which undermines any possibility of real, independent congressional oversight.

Most of the mainstream media, on the other hand, have chosen the path of moral reckoning. After granting candidate Trump nearly unlimited airtime in 2016 by carrying his rallies live, the fourth estate has course-corrected. It is no longer a given that cable news will carry a presidential rally or Rose Garden ceremony live. The old journalistic commitment to both-sides-ism has given way to outlets with explicitly partisan views. And through these partisan lenses has emerged a sudden vogue for “fact-checking” and “news analysis.”

In the span of a single term, Trump has so debased the institution of the presidency, it is now an open question whether it might ever be restored to its former place in American society.

Is it a task for Joe Biden in a “Jimmy Carter post-Watergate” sort of way? Will it take just one term to forget how bad things were and return to so-called normal?

Trump, after all, was not the first Imperial President. He has merely been the worst. But, in fairness, he is part of a line of succession which makes it safe to assume that worse still will follow him. With each new power assumed by his predecessors, Democrats and Republicans alike, the stakes were raised higher and higher, until a cataclysmic event like Trump was inevitable.

Thinking back to that day four years ago and breaking my own rule against predictions, perhaps Americans will finally see the dangers of concentrating too much power in a single executive officeholder. If there is a silver lining to the otherwise disastrous Trump presidency, it may be this realization.

If so, it is one we Canadians could certainly understand. Because no matter how much power might accrue in the Prime Minister’s Office, ultimately, we have a different system — one that deliberately separates the head of state from the head of government, and whose checks and balances seem very much alive and well, if the past week in Parliament is any indication.

Jaime Watt is executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Twitter: @jimewatt