Ever since the early 20th century, presidents have held a special place in American politics. However, this wasn’t what was originally intended for the office when the men who drafted the Constitution put it in place. The power of government was supposed to reside with the Congress and the powers of the president were, at first, rather limited. However, that changed and hasn’t really been a problem until this year — and it’s got me wondering: is Donald Trump the death of what historians call the “imperial president?”
First, a bit of context so you understand where I’m coming from.
The term “imperial presidency” was coined by Arthur Schlesinger in the 1960s during the Nixonian presidency. Schlesinger was a social critic and supporter of Bobby Kennedy when Kennedy ran for office, but he was also highly critical of the increased role of importance that the president had taken in American politics.
Schlesinger coined the term to describe Franklin Roosevelt, who vastly expanded the power of the American presidency. This isn’t a value judgment on Roosevelt — I happen to look up to Roosevelt (both of them) and I’m a firm believer in the New Deal. However, it’s objective fact that Roosevelt expanded the scope and reach of the presidency. This, according to Schlesinger, was the birth of the “imperial presidency.”
The “imperial presidency” theory has its critics, like most social theories, but I personally think there’s something to it. Throughout the ensuing decades, men of varying capabilities were elected — some of them, like Carter, were capable but generally a poor fit, while others, like Bush the Lesser, were neither capable nor a good fit.
All of them expanded the power of the presidency in some way — including Obama, who probably did more than any other president outside of FDR himself to expand the reach of the presidency.
Again, that’s not a value judgment. Obama did what he had to do to get around an intransigent Republican Congress who graduated from the Newt Gingrich school of governance.
But then there’s Trump.
America’s had incompetent presidents before. James Buchanan, for instance. We’ve had populists, like Andrew Jackson. We’ve had corrupt presidents — Jackson again, but also Harding and Grant. But all of these men were before the birth of the imperial presidency.
Now we’ve got an incompetent corrupt populist in the office after the birth of the imperial presidency, and the tools we trusted to the imperial presidency are being merrily abused.
I have been noticing another, subtler trend: Trump, increasingly, is kicking problems to Congress. The responsibilities that he’s shunting to Congress are responsibilities that, arguably, belonged to Congress all along. Perhaps Congress will set up and start taking back the powers assigned to it. In addition, by rampantly abusing the powers of the imperial presidency, perhaps it’ll act as a demonstration how dangerous it is to trust all this authority and latitude with one individual.
I don’t think this is intentional on his part. I think it’s because Trump is stupid and lazy and he wants someone else to solve his problems for him. But maybe, just maybe, there might be long-term good to come from it. Perhaps the era of the “imperial presidency” might finally end, and we might finally get a Congress that does what it’s supposed to do. Especially if gerrymandering gets shot down in court.
A guy can hope.