For years, I taught a course on the American Presidency. Given the central role of that office in the workings of our system of government, the class was always stimulating, topical and an opportunity to address important questions. To do the subject justice, you had to incorporate information about the U.S. Constitution, American history, the interaction among the different branches of government, public opinion and lots more.
I don’t know how I would teach that course today. Donald Trump has upended so many of the conventions and norms about the presidency that the terrain looks more like a lunar landscape than familiar hills and plains. It’s not even clear that we can use the same language that we did in the past to discuss Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson or Ronald Reagan.
As Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi recently observed, it’s not farfetched to worry whether Trump will abide by the results of a close election in 2020. With the notable exception of the Civil War, that’s not a outcome we ever had to consider before. Trump’s erratic behavior, his wildly irresponsible language, his flaunting of legal and constitutional restraints and his surrounding himself with a cadre of sycophants who are loyal to him rather than to our system should terrify any thoughtful citizen.
The issue of his intentions is, in the final analysis, irrelevant. It’s clear that he will say almost anything that pops into his head, whether it is true or not, whether it benefits him beyond the moment that he says it, whether it stirs followers to violence. We are told from time to time that some remark was a “joke”, that we should not take him literally, that he is apt to reverse his position on a whim. Yet, words and actions have consequences regardless of original intention.
We have seen in this country a dramatic rise in hate crimes and the growth of hate groups. Trump saw “good people on both sides” in Charlottesville when most decent observers saw white supremacists chanting racial slogans. Mass shootings in the United States have been overwhelming committed by white males raised in this country, not by Muslims, immigrants or other groups demonized by the president.
And now, in the aftermath of Robert Mueller submitting his report to the Department of Justice, the country really does seem to be hurtling toward a constitutional crisis that makes Watergate look like a minor misunderstanding. Trump is finally building a wall, but, instead of it being on the border with Mexico, it is a stonewall intended to prevent Congress from gaining access to information about his efforts to obstruct justice and place himself above the laws of this country.
Trump’s newest favorite toady, William Barr, has blocked access to the full Mueller Report. The argument that he possesses a higher authority to make judgments about the Report than do members of Congress raises the most fundamental constitutional issues. Now the President is claiming executive privilege to keep the full report under wraps, an assertion that would allow him to be the judge and jury of any accusations of wrong-doing leveled against him. The executive privilege blanket has similarly been thrown over individuals who could shed additional light on Trump’s behavior, such as Mueller himself and former White House Counsel Don McGann.
Down the street from the White House, Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin, a true blue loyalist if there ever was one, has concluded that Congress has no “legitimate legislative purpose” in requesting Trump’s tax returns, despite no qualifying language in the law that allows them to pursue the documents.
Will all the information requests and subpoenas end up being reviewed by the Supreme Court? In 1974, that court concluded that the President does not have unlimited power to resist inquiries from Congress. Will the conservative majority on the current court make a decision based on partisan politics or will they preserve their historic position as an independent branch of government?
In 1919, Irish poet W.B. Yeats wrote The Second Coming, that included lines that have been quoted many times over the years:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
In times of crisis, people have often asked whether the center would hold, whether rationality and moderation could stand up to anarchy and passionate intensity. We are surely at one of those moments in history. As Lin Manuel Miranda noted in “Hamilton,” “oceans rise, empires fall”. That the American experiment in democracy has had a really amazing run is no guarantee that we will survive the existential threat that the Trump presidency is posing.
The period between now and the 2020 election will test our souls as no other time ever has. Nothing should come as a surprise. Two hundred thirty years is far longer than any most other governments world wide have endured. Will this be the end of the American experiment?