Monday, December 19, 2016

Unpresidented


Too soon!


As in so many other things, Donald Trump has defined the impending era for us via Twitter.

Trump was commenting on an incident involving an American drone submarine being impounded by the Chinese navy. He called it "unpresidented." The tweet was later corrected to read "unprecedented," and there's at least a chance Trump knew that was the correct word, and just slipped up and used a nonexistent homophone instead, something I've done myself in the heat of passioante writing (both with a keyboard and a pen). Merriam Webster spun it into a "not" joke with its own tweet, saying "unpresidented" was NOT the word of the day, as that honor was reserved for the word "huh." Social media seized on the neologism, and it's been everywhere, as the nation tries to come to grips with what's going to happen on January 20.

The scrambling to correct the Freudian slip--and the ironic glee with which it's been welcomed by those of us already weeping over the loss of the classiest White House family in modern history--speak to me of a deeper significance to this word. As a candidate and as president-elect, Donald Trump has been acting consistently to redefine the presidency as both more powerful and less competent than what the nation and the world need. Since the United States first emerged as a superpower with its entry into World War I a century ago, the office of the American presidency has epitomized power restrained by the rule of law. American presidents command the world's most powerful military force, oversee the world's largest economy, implement and originate policies that impact every human being on the planet, and speak with a moral authority accorded to no other world leader. Much of that authority comes from the most unique aspect of the office: it is temporary. With the exception of Franklin D. Roosevelt, no American President has held the office for more than eight years; and no President has seen fit to question this term limit, made permanent by Constitutional amendment in 1951.

There are other limits on the length of a President's time in office, most notably the ability of the American people to elect someone else after four years. Barring that, or in the event of the voters somehow choosing a candidate who endangers the nation and planet through corruption or incompetence, there is the release valve of impeachment.

In times of national sanity, there has been great comfort in both the electoral limit and the impeachment correction. Incompetent Confederacy-appeaser Andrew Johnson's disastrous post-Lincoln Presidency was reined in by the threat of impeachment. Chronic power-abuser Richard Nixon resigned rather than face impeachment. Bill Clinton, on the other hand, was actually impeached (which means not removal from office, but indictment by Congress, with removal only occurring after a trial) for lawyerly obfuscation over a sex scandal. That show trial ended with Congress censoring Clinton. Disgusted voters dealt the Republican party serious blows in the following election, but also gave Al Gore too insignificant a majority to defeat George W. Bush; and the bad smell of that experience was one of the many factors keeping Hillary Clinton from winning outright in November.

I'd like to think that these three institutional brakes on Presidential abuse will protect our nation and planet from the apocalypse so many of my friends fear. Unfortunately, as effective as they have been in altering the course of presidential history, every one of them depends on an utterly unreliable force: the wisdom of those casting votes.

Let's start with what is indisputably both the most powerful and weakest link in this equation. In 1973, Congress acted honorably, in a bipartisan manner, to investigate the increasingly disturbing reports of Nixonian malfeasance in the 1972 campaign. Democrats and Republicans worked together to correct an electoral mistake, the reelection of an amoral, paranoid liar who was abusing the office for his own advancement and legacy. Republicans, in particular, chose the welfare of the nation over that of their party, and suffered the consequences in subsequent elections.

Not so the Republican Congress of 1998. Under the leadership of Newt Gingrich, the House in particular was out for blood. Republicans in the Senate acted more cautiously, choosing censorship over removal, but the die had been cast: since the Clinton impeachment, Congressional Republicans have refused to cooperate with Democrats, no matter how vital that cooperation is to the nation's welfare. Again and again, the GOP has chosen furtherance of its most extreme agenda, protection of its control of Congress and the White House at any cost, and obstruction of even the most bipartisan of Democrat-proposed policies. Republicans may claim to be protectors of the Constitution, but for two decades now their actions have belied that claim: they are, first and foremost, protectors of their party, to the detriment of true democracy. Considering what impeaching Nixon cost the Republicans of the 1970s, it's hard to imagine any action by President Trump, however unprecedentedly heinous, that would lead this Congress to impeach him.

That leaves us with the release valve of the 2020 election. Sadly, here, too, the human race must rely on an extremely shaky defender. The Trump campaign played a brilliant confidence game, worthy of the most gifted pool shark, convincing the nation its ground game was so incompetent that it could not possibly win the election--and then pulled it off by cobbling together an electoral college win, picking off just a few previously reliable blue states, even as it lost the popular tally by nearly 3 million votes. This shouldn't have happened: Trump's obvious exaggerations and outright lies; his disregard for immigrants, women, persons of color; his gilded lifestyle; his basic boorishness--all these things should have dealt him an even greater popular defeat, great enough to cost him those few swing states. The problem with that "should" is that it depends on enough swing voters being intelligent enough to 1) show up and 2) make the right decision. But that's not what happened: too many Rust Belt swing voters fell for the lies, both about the character of Hillary Clinton and about the fantasy of what Donald Trump could do for them. Meanwhile, the Clinton campaign just couldn't close the deal with these same voters.

It's the perennial problem with democracy as a method for choosing leaders: it relies on voters being both well-informed and wise. Some, perhaps many, are; but a large enough plurality vote with their guts that this nation has had, in my lifetime, to endure the presidencies of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and, now, Donald J. Trump. That's a lot of years of governance by persons who are not dedicated to the common good, unless it incidentally occurs while they lavish attention on the 1%.

To put it more simply: we can't count on these voters to know what's best for them or for their country, and that's why we can't be sure they'll do the right thing in 2020.

That's why so many of us are despondent as we contemplate the future. It's not just that we didn't get the President we wanted--and to be honest, Hillary Clinton would not have been able to accomplish much (except possibly saving the Supreme Court from a right-wing extremist majority, but even that was called into question by the abomination that was the Senate's treatment of Merrick Garland). No, it's that we're looking at the possibility that rather than an administration, we're on the verge of being governed by a regime, and none of the Constitutional checks and balances can prevent it from clumsily laying waste to all that we hold dear. Donald Trump will not be a President in the mold of any President any of us can remember. Every day brings appointments to the Cabinet that should be jokes on late night TV, flurries of nutty tweets from the reactor-in-chief, and new revelations about the role of Russian intelligence in swaying those ignorant swing voters to elect a monster. All the things the Presidency is supposed to be about--thoughtful diplomacy, moral leadership, respect for the Bill of Rights, governance by the rule of law--are being discarded by him, and his followers don't care.

There's no better word for this than the one Trump accidentally made up: we as a nation are about to be completely and utterly unpresidented.

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