But I must confess to being surprised at the way the Trump presidency might be rolling back the Cult of the Presidency. Here's how I thought it might play out. "It may take the failure of one or more of the New Deal or Great Society or Hope and Change constructions to trigger the emergence."
Yes, the two lies for the price of one Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is a failure, and nation building in the Third World is likely a failure, and yet, the devotees of the cult seem more obsessed with the Moral Leader of the Free World behaving badly, than with the absence of any substantive efforts either at comprehensive reform or at rolling back the administrative state, which might be the same thing.
Perhaps, though, the doctrine of moral leader is false.
The overwhelming majority of Americans aren’t so far gone as to take their cues about right and wrong from any president—let alone this one. A good thing too, given that, in living memory, presidents have conducted themselves abominably in their personal relationships, lied us into war, and used “the available federal machinery to screw [their] political enemies. Anyone looking for a personal role model might do better by randomly selecting a professional athlete or reality-show star (some exceptions may apply).(Via Cafe Hayek.)
Sure, “presidents affect culture,” but the biggest effect they have is by influencing how we think about the presidency—often in ways they don’t intend. Watergate obviously had an enormous impact on American attitudes toward the office. Nixon’s lawlessness helped puncture the myth of “the implicit infallibility of presidents,” by revealing that the man in the Oval Office could be a petty, paranoid, foul-mouthed little crook.
In a less dramatic fashion, Bill Clinton also helped demystify the presidency. As Judge Posner correctly predicted in his book on the Clinton impeachment, that episode’s “most abiding effect… may be to make it difficult to take Presidents seriously as superior people.” If we needed a refresher course in that lesson, we’re certainly getting one right now.
George Will was thinking along similar lines, before the Charlottesville protests brought the punditry back from the Hamptons.
After 2001, “The Decider” decided to start a preventive war and to countenance torture prohibited by treaty and statute. His successor had “a pen and a phone,” an indifference to the Constitution’s Take-Care Clause (the president “shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed”) and disdain for the separation of powers, for which he was repeatedly rebuked by the Supreme Court.I would be delighted if the next Democratic front-runner told Chris Matthews to stop drooling, or the next Republican front-runner told Sean Hannity to save the hero-worship for a New York Ranger. I'm even more delighted with that "sacerdotal pomposities."
Fortunately, today’s president is so innocent of information that Congress cannot continue deferring to executive policymaking. And because this president has neither a history of party identification nor an understanding of reciprocal loyalty, congressional Republicans are reacquiring a constitutional — a Madisonian — ethic. It mandates a prickly defense of institutional interests, placing those interests above devotion to parties that allow themselves to be defined episodically by their presidents.
Furthermore, today’s president is doing invaluable damage to Americans’ infantilizing assumption that the presidency magically envelops its occupant with a nimbus of seriousness. After the president went to West Virginia to harangue some (probably mystified) Boy Scouts about his magnificence and persecutions, he confessed to Ohioans that Lincoln, but only Lincoln, was more “presidential” than he. So much for the austere and reticent first president, who, when the office was soft wax, tried to fashion a style of dignity compatible with republican simplicity.
Fastidious people who worry that the president’s West Virginia and Ohio performances — the alpha male as crybaby — diminished the presidency are missing the point, which is: For now, worse is better. Diminution drains this office of the sacerdotal pomposities that have encrusted it. There will be 42 more months of this president’s increasingly hilarious-beyond-satire apotheosis of himself, leavened by his incessant whining about his tribulations (“What dunce saddled me with this silly attorney general who takes my policy expostulations seriously?”). This protracted learning experience, which the public chose to have and which should not be truncated, might whet the public’s appetite for an adult president confident enough to wince at, and disdain, the adoration of his most comically groveling hirelings.
Iconoclasm is never pretty, though. I did warn you. "The gentry liberals, and the academic-entertainment complex, have done much damage, as have the rent seekers. But like any other ruling class, they will not relinquish power graciously." And the ungraciousness is on display at CNN, night after night.