So, five days into 2021, I’m about halfway through Barack Obama’s memoir A Promised Land; my partner and I just yesterday finished watching season four of The Crown; and we’re all (that is to say, everyone I know) watching with varying degrees of incredulity what we can only hope is the final phase of Donald Trump’s post-election meltdown.
While these three things might seem at best tenuously connected—I suppose they’re all about leadership in troubled times, one way or another—they comprise in my mind an oddly serendipitous trifecta. This feeling of serendipity is a product of my own idiosyncratic thought processes, to be certain, not least because I’ve found myself musing at various points over the past few years about the irony that America’s Founding Fathers, in their antipathy to kings, tyrants, and demagogues, created a system that, 227 years later, facilitated the election of a demagogic king-wannabe with a tyrannical temperament. And in the determination to create a republican rather than a parliamentary democracy, they and those who followed them introduced certain rigidities that circumscribed a presidential term of office in ways that are anathema to a parliamentary system: the absolute scheduling of elections and inaugurations, for one thing, but also, more significantly, the designation of the President as somehow different in kind from other officeholders. While a prime minister is “first among equals,” the U.S. President inhabits a dual identity—the person himself (or hopefully sometime soon, herself), coterminous with the Office of the President. Again, considering the Founders’ aversion to kings, the relationship between the president and the Office is weirdly not unlike the principle of the King’s Two Bodies, a bit of medieval legalese designed to account for how a person supposedly divinely sanctioned to rule could also be lascivious, cruel, or just generally sinful. The principle distinguishes between the corporeal, temporal, and corruptible person of the monarch, and the monarch’s eternal, divine role as God’s Anointed (if you’ve ever wondered why British kings and queens refer to themselves as “we,” this is why—they’re speaking for their two bodies).
Both conceptions entail a logic of succession: upon the death of the monarch, the title then passes to the heir; and as we’ve heard many, many times over the past several weeks, the moment Joe Biden takes the oath of office on January 20 is the very instant in which Donald Trump ceases to be President—and, if he has thus far refused to exit the White House, the same moment he becomes a trespasser to be frog-marched out of the building by the Secret Service (fingers crossed).
When I think of the logic of succession, I can’t help but think of a passage from Terry Pratchett’s novel Mort:
The only thing known to go faster than ordinary light is monarchy, according to the philosopher Ly Tin Wheedle. He reasoned like this: you can’t have more than one king, and tradition demands that there is no gap between kings, so when a king dies the succession must therefore pass to the heir instantaneously. Presumably, he said, there must be some elementary particles—kingons, or possibly queons—that do this job, but of course succession sometimes fails if, in mid-flight, they strike an anti-particle, or republicon. His ambitious plans to use his discovery to send messages, involving the careful torturing of a small king in order to modulate the signal, were never fully expanded because, at that point, the bar closed.
Except that, in the case of the U.S. constitution, the “republicon” particle repurposes the instantaneous transmission of monarchy for its own uses.
For all of the very self-consciously constructed philosophical and political distance between republicanism and monarchy, I find it oddly amusing to find such vestiges of the latter embedded in the former. While we Canadians might still constitutionally have the British Crown as our head of state—and while that might irk and chafe a good number of us—on the whole we don’t tend to think of it as that big of a deal, given the purely ceremonial nature the Queen plays. And there is something comforting in the fact of the “first among equals” principle, that we don’t invest the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) with the same sort of eternal, enduring quality as the office of the President (indeed, references in the media to the PMO figure it for what it is—a political communications shop).
But to be fair to the American system, it has largely functioned well, lo its relatively short life. Watching Trump wreak havoc on norms and behavioural expectations has been a disturbing object lesson in just how many things we assumed were matters of law were in fact just norms and behavioural expectations. In some ways, it’s remarkable that it’s taken this long for a president to test the boundaries of presidential power and privilege in such egregious ways. Even Richard Nixon treated the office with a measure of respect that is simply alien to Trump. But then, Nixon was also a career politician and, for all his faults, an intelligent man who understood the history of the U.S. republic and its laws—which is likely why he went to such length to hide his crimes, whereas Trump consistently says the quiet part out loud. In the end, however “swampy” Trump proved to be, he did ultimately prove, in this respect, his status as an outsider: an inveterate grifter, he is also simply ignorant of history and tradition and, more significantly, has no use for it. (Perhaps at their base, the most elemental characteristics of the loathed “elites” and “establishment” are a grasp of political history and a sense of that knowledge’s worth).
It is then perhaps ironic that, even as we were shocked to discover what we assumed to be laws were just norms, it was constitutionally circumscribed law that made Trump more or less untouchable for these long four years. To be certain, he was enabled by a craven and opportunistic Republican congress; but even if the G.O.P. had been inclined to stifle his more extreme behaviour, what in a parliamentary system could be resolved with a vote of no confidence is subject to a much higher bar: either the invocation of the twenty-fifth amendment, or impeachment and removal. The twenty-fifth, presumably, is still a possibility should Trump truly go off the deep end in the next two weeks, but it was never a viable option with his sycophantic cabinet and VP (two-thirds of the former and consent of the latter are required to invoke the amendment). And of course he was impeached, but a two-thirds vote in the Senate for conviction was never in the cards … as it hasn’t been historically.
All of which conspired to give Trump a level of impunity we associate with monarchs. In the words of John Mulaney, “I don’t remember that from Hamilton!”