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Presidential Confusion

One thing we learn from presidential studies is how muddled we are about the presidency

Imagine being a presidential scholar in this moment when the highest office in the land has been captured by a barely literate showman whose formative experience is in real estate development and reality TV. You gaze upon your shelves full of sober considerations about the way this magisterial office has functioned in the intricately balanced American constitutional system. What good are these books now? Not only has the current president never read a single one of them, he is rapidly making them seem irrelevant, as if they were handbooks on etiquette from a distant age.

You are familiar with your colleagues’ work on the “managerial presidency,” the “imperial presidency,” the “hidden-hand presidency,” the “rhetorical presidency.” Your shelves offer up titles like The Presidential Character, and Presidential Greatness, and Presidential Courage. Certainly you’ve got Neustadt’s 1960 classic Presidential Power and the Politics of Leadership and have reconsidered it in light of Skowronek’s 1993 The Politics Presidents Make.

None of this work, which so consistently falls into the Great Man school of history, has a chapter in it labeled “When the President is an Unqualified Twit.”

Yet it’s safe to say that nowhere in this vast body of studies—there are seven essential reference works and 214 “Important Works” listed in the bibliography of Cronin and Genovese’s The Paradoxes of the American Presidency—will you find extended consideration of “the deranged presidency.” None of this work, which so consistently falls into the Great Man school of history, has a chapter in it labeled “When the President is an Unqualified Twit.”

You’ve plumbed the records of forty-four presidents for “leadership lessons.” But you left the idea that the American political system could go wildly off the rails to novelists and movie-makers. Sinclair Lewis in 1935 imagined a demagogue rising to power, backed by the League of Forgotten Men, who used the presidency to usher in a fascist regime, even as onlookers—people like you?—assured themselves “it can’t happen here.” Elia Kazan’s 1957 movie A Face in the Crowd portrayed a charismatic political demagogue wielding folk wisdom and a guitar. Richard Condon’s 1959 novel The Manchurian Candidate, which was made into a movie three years later, reflected a residual 1950s Cold War paranoia about Soviet plots against the American political system. And Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964) conjured a deranged general launching a nuclear attack on the Soviets without presidential approval.

And then there was Jerzy Kosinski’s 1970 novel Being There, which was made into a memorable movie in 1979 starring Peter Sellers as Chance the gardener. Chance is a TV-addled simpleton whose frank statement that “I don’t read newspapers” covers up the fact that he never learned to read or write. And yet when he lands in the media spotlight, his gardening pronouncements are taken as political profundities. The book ends with him being considered as a possible running mate for an unnamed candidate for president.

Even in these satires and dystopias, though, you don’t find an exact parallel of what the country has gone through in the Survivor-like campaign of 2016 and the first year of the Trump presidency. Chance the gardener is a benign figure who truly only wants to get back to the garden—not an ambitious narcissist who wants celebrity and power. Berzelius Windrip, the dictatorial president in It Can’t Happen Here is crafty and effective in transforming a representative system into a repressive one.

Such a threat, you well know, was front-and-center in the minds of the Constitution’s framers. The idea that a demagogue or an aristocrat could seize power and swerve toward monarchical government was a real and present danger. And yet as four-year-cycles came and went, Americans grew accustomed to congratulating themselves on “the peaceful transfer of power” after a presidential election. The studies of presidential leadership accumulated. Patterns began to be observed. These patterns were comforting. Rules and traditions defined the boundaries of ordinary presidential behavior. It became a truism that even if you disagreed with a president’s decisions you would always respect the Office of the Presidency itself. You would reasonably assume the occupant would, too.

So the tone and style of your chosen discipline, presidential studies, is one of near reverence for the office and, for the most part, for those men who have been skilled enough to ascend to this great summit of power. Even the rotters have to be taken seriously; Nixon, for all his mendacity, understood politics and knew how to wield power. Andrew Johnson faced impeachment hearings, as did Bill Clinton, but the presidency was not besmirched. Presidents failed in all kinds of ways, but the presidency itself was stable and enduring. The failures became part of the drama of a system that bends but doesn’t break. After the Watergate scandal forced Nixon’s resignation, Gerald Ford took the oath of office, declaring “our long national nightmare is over.” He added: “Our Constitution works. Our great republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here the people rule.”

Presidential scholars are cousins to those authors who fill bookstores with studies of how CEOs succeed—how the right kind of leader can get his company to make the leap “from good to great.” It was inevitable that a culture that worships managerial “dynamism” and “disruption” would eventually promote a tycoon as national CEO. Yet, reading presidential studies during this current national nightmare you find, just by randomly plucking a book and opening to any page, ideals that seem now almost risible in light of the Trump presidency. Fred I. Greenstein in The Presidential Difference (2000) looked at the role of “emotional intelligence” in presidential success. By that he means a president’s ability to “manage his emotions and turn them to constructive purposes.” He sees five other traits that the chief executive needs: aptitude for public communications; ability to motivate and use advisers; skillful bargaining with other politicians; consistent views in public policy; and a good cognitive style of processing information.

Presidential scholars are cousins to those authors who fill bookstores with studies of how CEOs succeed.

At about the same time, political scientists Marc Landy and Sidney Milkis came out with their study, Presidential Greatness. In contrast to historians who ranked the great presidents in terms of their ambitious use of power, Landy and Milkis see greatness as coming from a strong educational purpose. They imagine a great president as one who seeks to “teach the nation about the need for great change but also about how to reconcile change with American constitutional traditions and purposes.”

Of course, we’d want a president to have the right kind of temperament, too. James David Barber, in The Presidential Character (first published in 1972), turned to psychological theories to predict presidential performance. He saw four kinds of presidential personalities: they could be either active or passive in their approach to governing, and they could be positive or negative about power politics. Those presidents who fell into the active/positive category were the ones likely to succeed.

The psychological approach was rebuffed by those scholars more interested in the way the structures of the presidency constrained the occupant, regardless of personality. Political scientist Theodore Lowi, in his 1985 book The Personal President, identified himself with the “institutionalist” approach. As he explained it,

Roles are learned and obligations are internalized over the long stretch of any politician’s rise to power, and though in that sense they certainly become aspects of character, these roles and obligations are common to all politicians to varying degrees. . . . How presidents will in fact behave when they occupy that particular institution will be determined marginally by their psychologies or characters. But the amazing thing is the continuity and regularity of their behavior despite great differences in individual psychology/character.

So what we learn from such studies is that we’d like to see someone in the Oval Office who has well-managed emotions, good cognitive abilities to understand a wide range of complex public policy issues, a profound understanding of the Constitution and the ability of a great teacher to explain those traditions, a sort of “happy warrior” positivity, and someone who has “internalized over the long stretch” the proper roles and obligations of public office. It’s not that our scholars are wrong about these ideals, but at this moment their work is a little . . . off point. One could argue that President Obama had most of the above traits, and one could suggest Trump has not a single one of them. By these standards, we might rank Obama as a successful president and we might fully expect Trump to fail. In the normal course of things, we’d wait four years and replace a failed president with one who is up to the job. Another national nightmare would be over and we would say “the system worked.” On the final day of 2017, the New York Times ran a front-page story suggesting that Trump is “transforming the presidency in ways that were once unimaginable.” Yet the story concluded on a reassuring note: Martha Joynt Kumar, a retired political science professor and White House scholar, said “The presidency has been a durable institution. And I’m betting on it that it can handle almost anything.”

Earlier this month, when everyone else was reading and talking about Michael Wolff’s book on the first nine months of the Trump administration, Fire and Fury, I was reading a more staid treatment entitled Trump’s First Year, by Michael Nelson, a professor at Rhodes College and a senior fellow at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. Nelson knows the field of presidential studies as well as anyone out there.(Disclosure: I edited occasional book reviews by Nelson when I worked for The American Prospect.) 

Nelson gives us a chronicle, without trying to discern what Trump’s rise to power tells us about the presidency. The effect of reading his straight-through narrative is probably not much different than what you’d get from Wolff’s. When it’s all assembled into one account, you realize how many bizarre events have taken place that you tend to forget as new ones come along (remember the pardoning of a brutal sheriff in Arizona who violated human rights?) and how many ludicrous lies this president has told. (About Twitter, Trump once said: “I’ll give it up after I’m president. We won’t tweet any more. I don’t know. Not presidential.”)

As much as Nelson tries to maintain the even-handed tone of the political scientist, he notes that “Trump’s first-year record of legislative futility was remarkable.” And he includes a chapter toward the end on “Prospects for Removal.” He concludes with one of those statements that presidential scholars hold so dear: the resistance to Trump means “he has been taught the hard way what most of the country has rejoiced in for more than two centuries: that the American constitutional system is well designed to ‘counteract ambition’ when ambition aspires to roam directionless and unrestrained.”

Of course, it’s too soon to say. We don’t know yet whether the real-life effects of the Trump presidency will be as bad as LBJ and Nixon’s prosecution of the war in Vietnam; or whether he will surpass (or has already) Nixon in criminality; or whether his reactionary leadership will extend as far as Reagan’s did; or whether he will stumble into anything as destructive as George W. Bush’s ill-conceived wars.

It is a distinguishing mark of presidential studies that scholars can’t even agree on the most essential question: Is the office too powerful, or not powerful enough?

The “how bad can it be?” question is part of our confusion about the presidency. We know that presidents can’t single-handedly bring about the kind of “political revolution” Bernie Sanders spoke about—they need the backing of a mass movement and a strong party with Congressional majorities. They are weak in creating affirmative politics. But how much damage can they inflict? If Trump is truly as incompetent as he seems, or if the presidency is as hamstrung as some theorists would have it, might the damage be limited? We know only that it depends on luck. You could argue that the most important change in the president’s power was never envisioned in the Constitution: it came when the president was granted, in the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, exclusive authority to launch a nuclear attack. If the president can not be trusted to “manage his emotions and turn them to constructive purposes” the constitutional remedies of impeachment or removal by the twenty-fifth amendment are, in the worst-case scenario, dead letters.

And that brings us to the true “leadership lesson” that lurks in our dusty volumes of presidential scholarship—which is also a followership question. Even before Trump came along (breaking that “continuity and regularity” Lowi wrote about), we have been deeply confused about the role a president plays in a representative democracy. It is a distinguishing mark of presidential studies that scholars can’t even agree on the most essential question about presidential governance: Is the office too powerful, or not powerful enough?

When Richard Neustadt wrote Presidential Power in 1960, he looked to Franklin D. Roosevelt as a paragon of energetic presidential leadership. His view was that the presidency was not inherently powerful, so a president needed to strengthen his powers on multiple fronts to meet his responsibilities. When a young Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. was advising John F. Kennedy, he felt that way, too. But by the time the Nixon administration showed what that power looked like in different hands he saw the president as a threat to constitutional democracy. His 1973 book The Imperial Presidency was the result.

A decade later, along comes Lowi in The Personal President arguing that the whole problem began with FDR, when Congress ceded power to the executive branch. He saw a move toward “president-centered government” which led to higher expectations for a Great Leader—a person of exceptional managerial abilities and inspiring vision—to solve all problems. Every presidential candidate, after all, promises to make everything great. The expectations of president-led transformation have risen to the point, Lowi wrote (midway through the eight-year “Reagan revolution”) that “the probability of failure is always tending toward 100 percent.”

Even that question of “failure,” though, is hard to define. What is the standard of success in the use of presidential power? Neustadt famously wrote that “the power of the president is the power to persuade.” More recently, George Edwards III, author of On Deaf Ears: The Limits of the Bully Pulpit (2003), sifted through public opinion data and concluded that presidents almost never have a significant effect on changing people’s minds. What a president needs to do is recognize opportunities and then skillfully manage coalitions to bring about change. Once again, his description of the successful leader does not sound anything like the current occupant of the White House:

Before a president can fashion a strategy for accomplishing his goals, he must rigorously analyze the most significant features of his environment to understand the opportunity structure of his administration.

Ah yes, to “rigorously analyze” and to understand. Trump got nothing but laughs when he once pretended to operate that way. “I don’t get to watch much television,” he told reporters in November. “Primarily because of documents. I’m reading documents. A lot.” Not long after that, he reassured the country he was a very stable genius, which was followed by a New York Times editorial entitled “Is Mr. Trump Nuts?”

Stephen Skowronek has written about a cycle where a president regularly comes along who is a “great disrupter.” FDR was one, as was Reagan. His measure of presidents is not just in what governmental changes they make; he examines how they remake the politics of the nation. In this sense, Trump is attempting something bolder than even Nixon or Bush/Cheney contemplated: previous presidents have at least given lip service to being “a uniter, not a divider.” Most presidents attempt to encourage unity, as if we hadn’t given up on our “better angels.” No president has actively fomented racism, enmity, and division—or reveled in it—in the way that Trump has. Trump is unquestionably making a more vitriolic national politics by ginning up antagonisms over immigration, against black activists who dare to protest racial mistreatment, against the very idea of his being held accountable for what he says, or how his business interests are intertwined with government decision-making. In a Washington Post opinion piece after Trump’s election, Skowronek was skeptical about Trump’s chances to remake American politics in the way, say, that Reagan did by railing against big government and taxation. “A great disrupter who does not set a new standard of legitimacy will just pull things apart,” he wrote. Well, pulling things apart seems like a real possibility.

One of the useful insights in Lowi’s book The Personal President has to do with the pathology that has developed when a nation’s politics becomes so utterly focused on one individual. A move to “president-centered government” (there was a time in the 1800s when the system was said to be Congress-centered) has dark implications for democracy. As Lowi (who died last year just a month after Trump’s inauguration) wrote, when our ideas about democracy became intertwined with electing a strong president “the American capacity for self-government rested from then on upon the president’s capacity to govern.” And Lowi’s observation that “Already we have a virtual cult of personality revolving around the White House” feels terribly apt in these days when every morning puts us in a running argument with the president’s provocations. You look at Twitter and find hundreds of people every hour of every day attempting to reason with this Wizard of Oz.

If you are seeking patterns and continuities, wondering in what way Trump might resemble Nixon or Reagan, or even the shamefully racist Andrew Jackson, you miss the fundamental problem.

Yet even understanding the pathologies of the cult of the presidency doesn’t capture the depth of the current breakdown. If you are seeking patterns and continuities, wondering in what way Trump might resemble Nixon or Reagan, or even the shamefully racist Andrew Jackson, you miss the fundamental problem. The government has been captured by a movement that represents a minority of Americans. The movement is funded by billionaires, propped up by corrupt wealthy preachers, led in its Congressional wing by cynical Machiavellians, and engineered by tacticians who understand how to work levers of power in state governments to preserve minority-party control.

State legislatures and the U.S. House of Representatives have been gerrymandered to be unrepresentative. The U.S. Senate and the Electoral College give disproportionate power to land over population. And the presidency has twice been taken by a Republican who lost the popular vote. Trump won the Electoral College partly because states like Wisconsin and Florida have succeeded in disenfranchising so many non-Republican voters. Having control of the Senate, the Republicans stole a Supreme Court seat. In multiple important ways they have found ways to seize power as a minority party without widespread support for their goals. We may have reached a tipping point where basic democratic dysfunctions will be sanctioned by the Supreme Court and we may already be at the point where true democracy has been disabled. So there is a new volume waiting to be written in presidential studies. It could be called The Illegitimate Presidency: It Happened Here.