The presidency is in crisis — not a crisis in the making but a day-in, day-out crisis already made. It’s easy to blame Donald Trump for everything that is wrong with the position he currently occupies, as he is certainly a blameworthy man.
But this one is not on Trump. At least not entirely.
Jeremi Suri, who once taught at the University of Wisconsin and is now the Mack Brown distinguished professor for global leadership, history, and public policy at the University of Texas at Austin, argues: “The U.S. presidency is the most powerful office in the world, but it is set up to fail. And the power is the problem. Beginning as a small and uncertain position within a large and sprawling democracy, the presidency has grown over two centuries into a towering central command for global decisions about war, economy, and justice. The president can bomb more places, spend more money, and influence more people than any other figure in history. His reach is almost boundless.”
Unfortunately, Suri explains, “reach does not promote desired results. Each major president has changed the world, but none has changed it as he liked. Often just the opposite. Rising power elicits demands on that power, at home and abroad, that exceed capabilities. Rising power also inspires resistance, from jealous friends as much as determined adversaries. Dominance motivates mounting commitments, exaggerated promises, and widening distractions — ‘mission creep,’ in its many infectious forms.”
This point, which Suri examines in his fine new book, "The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America's Highest Office" (Basic Books), is essential to understanding why the Trump presidency is such a mess.
Suri will address the broader crisis, and the Trump interregnum, at several events this week in Madison — including a reading at 7 tonight at Mystery to Me on Monroe Street, a presentation at 5:30 Thursday night at the Central Library, and a Friday event sponsored by The Madison Institute and the American Constitution Society-Madison Lawyer Chapter.
When I was writing my book on Trump’s Cabinet and inner circle, I wrestled with the question of where Trump ends and folks like Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt and Attorney General Jeff Sessions begin. The answer, of course, is that the presidency has become so vast in its reach that we err in focusing on the one person who takes the oath on Jan. 20 every four years.
It is necessary to recognize, as Suri does, that the executive branch is now so immense and so powerful that “presidents frequently lose control of their agendas because they are too busy deploying their power flagrantly, rather than targeting it selectively.”
Suri’s assessment of Trump is an important one. He helps to put the man and his presidency in perspective.
The professor recalls Thomas Jefferson’s counsel: “I hope our wisdom will grow with our power, and teach us that the less we use our power the greater it will be. But Suri explains: “Jefferson’s heirs did not heed his words. By the mid-20th century the rapid growth of American power made frequent misuse unavoidable, and effective leadership nearly unattainable. The United States strayed from its values more than any elected president could correct, despite repeated public hopes for a savior. Leaders pursued goals — for wealth, influence, and security — that undermined the democracy they aimed to preserve.
Suri concludes a recent essay — headlined: “Trump is everything the Founding Fathers feared in a president” — with some wisdom of his own: “The widening gap between power and values produced President Donald Trump, elected to promote raw power above all. He is the final fall of the founders’ presidency — the absolute antithesis of what they expected for the office. President Trump was not inevitable, but the rise and fall of America’s highest office had a historical logic that explains the current moment, and how we might move forward.”
This is a reasoned assessment that goes far beyond the partisanship and ideological gamesmanship of the moment. It tells us that, yes, we can and must worry about the excesses of this president. But it suggests that merely focusing on Trump is an insufficient response. We need to turn our attention to the question of what the presidency has become — and to the greater question of how we might renew a system of checks and balances that is strong enough to guard against executive excess and abuse.
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. His new book, "Horsemen of the Trumpocalypse: A Field Guide to the Most Dangerous People in America" (Nation Books), examines how Trump’s appointees are — in the words of Steve Bannon — engaged in the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” email@example.com and @NicholsUprising
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