Deconstructing The Imperial Presidency

Timothy Philen Freelance writer
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Shocking! Shameful! Delusional! Despicable! Dangerous! The Ivy League elites of cable news are running out of pejoratives to disparage the Trump ascendancy.

Just as their patrician professors might have, they’ve branded the new administration nothing more than a “Trump l’oeil:” an illusion of presidential leadership created by a Rat Pack wannabe grifter-in-chief who has no intention of comporting himself any differently than he ever has, nor paying homage to the conventions of the “imperial presidency” begun by Harvard’s Franklin Roosevelt, perfected by Harvard’s John Kennedy, and perpetuated in the circumspect word parsing of Yale and Oxford’s William Jefferson Clinton.

Then again, “in the last analysis,” as JFK would say, who cares?

We now know that “Camelot” was a mirage, and that liberal icons like Lyndon Johnson trafficked in as many vulgarities of word and deed in office as Trump did in his private life. As for Bill Clinton, his triangulation extended beyond political infidelities to the marital variety, his legendary limboing lowering the presidential bar in full view of the nation. And what was the nation’s reaction? His approval rating went up year after year, simply because Americans respected his policy decisions, as much as they may have disrespected him personally.

And so it should be with Trump.

We need to contain our critiques to the president’s agenda and stop wringing our hands every time he issues an angry tweet, or misremembers a high school history or civics lesson. These are trivial offenses and ultimately inconsequential — unless, of course, you believe that Joe Biden’s revelation that FDR went on television to break the news of the stock market crash of 1929 should disqualify him from being commander-in-chief.

That said, it’s still unsettling, even for Trump supporters, when he acts out the boor and braggart most of us keep well hidden beneath our mantles of social respectability and educational erudition.

It’s also exhausting. One minute he’s the deliberative Wharton School graduate and cool, calculating businessman. The next minute he’s “Costanza Unchained,” brimming with unformed, ill-formed and uninformed notions worthy of Jerry Seinfeld’s lovably flawed sidekick — a cauldron of competing instincts and ideas that boil over any ideological kettle that tries to contain them.

What does contain them, thankfully, are the cabinet, the congress, the constitution and Kushner, his Svengali-in-law advisor who keeps this maverick president focused on doing what he does best — and what an aloof Barack Obama, by all accounts, was most uncomfortable and ineffective in doing — dealmaking, jawboning and schmoozing with foreign and domestic leaders, arguably the most important duties of any president.

Still, like Jason Alexander’s classic character, Trump’s success came from being “the opposite” of every presidential candidate in 2016. So don’t expect his incendiary style — which keeps the media spotlight on his agenda — to gentrify over time. Ever since President Obama leveled a barrage of insulting jokes at him at the Radio and Television Correspondent’s Dinner in 2011, Donald Trump has been at war with Washington. And he’s won every battle.

He seceded from the union of politics and politesse, recruited an army of aggrieved soldiers, and delivered not only the greatest upset in presidential history, but a Shermanesque ransacking of the Democratic Party as well — a party so incorrigibly tone-deaf, they’re actually entertaining Hillary Clinton’s offer to sign on again as Joan of Arc, with her new “Onward Together” super PAC leading “La Resistance” to Trump.

He must be amused.

While she’s searching for “the real killers” of the Democratic Party, he’ll be presiding over the first real “plebeian presidency” since Andrew Jackson, complete with a trail of tears for his political opponents that stretches from Wisconsin to Michigan, to Ohio, to Pennsylvania.

Thanks to the Democrats’ epic fail, and a few bona fide successes in his first 100 days, Trump has even had the confidence to be mildly self-deprecating. At the celebration of the House Republicans’ healthcare victory he said “How am I doing? Am I doing okay? I’m president. Hey, I’m president. Can you believe it?!”

Yes, we can believe it.

And, if we can get beyond the fact that the bar of the imperial presidency has been completely removed, we can also believe that substantial political progress is possible with Donald Trump, even for Progressives. That’s because he’s unencumbered by ideology, he’s a deal maker at heart, and he has a consuming need to be loved, respected and seen as a winner.

George Costanza might think this is a presidency “about nothing,” but I think there’s something here — something for everyone on both sides of the aisle: a chance for real and productive compromise.

That will depend, however, on whether the Democrats can get over their hatred of this businessman president, and get on with the business of governing.

Timothy Philen is the author of Harper & Row/Lippincott’s “You CAN Run Away From It!,” a satirical indictment of pop psychology.