This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
Slouching Toward Mar-a-Lago
The Post-Cold-War Consensus Collapses
By Andrew J. Bacevich
Like it or not, the president of the United States embodies America itself. The individual inhabiting the White House has become the preeminent symbol of who we are and what we represent as a nation and a people. In a fundamental sense, he is us.
It was not always so. Millard Fillmore, the 13th president (1850-1853), presided over but did not personify the American republic. He was merely the federal chief executive. Contemporary observers did not refer to his term in office as the Age of Fillmore. With occasional exceptions, Abraham Lincoln in particular, much the same could be said of Fillmore's successors. They brought to office low expectations, which they rarely exceeded. So when Chester A. Arthur (1881-1885) or William Howard Taft (1909-1913) left the White House, there was no rush to immortalize them by erecting gaudy shrines -- now known as "presidential libraries" -- to the glory of their presidencies. In those distant days, ex-presidents went back home or somewhere else where they could find work.
Over the course of the past century, all that has changed. Ours is a republic that has long since taken on the trappings of a monarchy, with the president inhabiting rarified space as our king-emperor. The Brits have their woman in Buckingham Palace. We have our man in the White House.
Nominally, the Constitution assigns responsibilities and allocates prerogatives to three co-equal branches of government. In practice, the executive branch enjoys primacy. Prompted by a seemingly endless series of crises since the Great Depression and World War II, presidents have accumulated ever-greater authority, partly through usurpation, but more often than not through forfeiture.
At the same time, they also took on various extra-constitutional responsibilities. By the beginning of the present century, Americans took it for granted that the occupant of the Oval Office should function as prophet, moral philosopher, style-setter, interpreter of the prevailing zeitgeist, and -- last but hardly least -- celebrity-in-chief. In short, POTUS was the bright star at the center of the American solar system.- Advertisement -
As recently as a year ago, few saw in this cult of the presidency cause for complaint. On odd occasions, some particularly egregious bit of executive tomfoolery might trigger grumbling about an "imperial presidency." Yet rarely did such complaints lead to effective remedial action. The War Powers Resolution of 1973 might be considered the exception that proves the rule. Inspired by the disaster of the Vietnam War and intended to constrain presidents from using force without congressional buy-in and support, that particular piece of legislation ranks alongside the Volstead Act of 1919 (enacted to enforce Prohibition) as among the least effective ever to become law.
In truth, influential American institutions -- investment banks and multinational corporations, churches and universities, big city newspapers and TV networks, the bloated national security apparatus and both major political parties -- have found reason aplenty to endorse a system that elevates the president to the status of demigod. By and large, it's been good for business, whatever that business happens to be.
Furthermore, it's our president -- not some foreign dude -- who is, by common consent, the most powerful person in the universe. For inhabitants of a nation that considers itself both "exceptional" and "indispensable," this seems only right and proper. So Americans generally like it that their president is the acknowledged Leader of the Free World rather than some fresh-faced pretender from France or Canada.
Then came the Great Hysteria. Arriving with a Pearl Harbor-like shock, it erupted on the night of November 8, 2016, just as the news that Hillary Clinton was losing Florida and appeared certain to lose much else besides became apparent.
Suddenly, all the habits and precedents that had contributed to empowering the modern American presidency no longer made sense. That a single deeply flawed individual along with a handful of unelected associates and family members should be entrusted with determining the fate of the planet suddenly seemed the very definition of madness.
Emotion-laden upheavals producing behavior that is not entirely rational are hardly unknown in the American experience. Indeed, they recur with some frequency. The Great Awakenings of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries are examples of the phenomenon. So also are the two Red Scares of the twentieth century, the first in the early 1920s and the second, commonly known as "McCarthyism," coinciding with the onset of the Cold War.- Advertisement -
Yet the response to Donald Trump's election, combining as it has fear, anger, bewilderment, disgust, and something akin to despair, qualifies as an upheaval without precedent. History itself had seemingly gone off the rails. The crude Andrew Jackson's 1828 ousting of an impeccably pedigreed president, John Quincy Adams, was nothing compared to the vulgar Donald Trump's defeat of an impeccably credentialed graduate of Wellesley and Yale who had served as first lady, United States senator, and secretary of state. A self-evidently inconceivable outcome -- all the smart people agreed on that point -- had somehow happened anyway.
A vulgar, bombastic, thrice-married real-estate tycoon and reality TV host as prophet, moral philosopher, style-setter, interpreter of the prevailing zeitgeist, and chief celebrity? The very idea seemed both absurd and intolerable.
If we have, as innumerable commentators assert, embarked upon the Age of Trump, the defining feature of that age might well be the single-minded determination of those horrified and intent on ensuring its prompt termination. In 2016, TIME magazine chose Trump as its person of the year. In 2017, when it comes to dominating the news, that "person" might turn out to be a group -- all those fixated on cleansing the White House of Trump's defiling presence.