January 24, 2020


The Trump book you didn't hear about but is the most devastating yet (Tabatha SoutheyJan 24, 2020, Maclean's)

What the pair [Susan Hennessey and Benjamin Wittes] have done with Unmaking the Presidency: Donald Trump's War on the World's Most Powerful Office is striking. Rarely is anything this sobering this hard to put down. The book is part detailed and comprehensive history of the office of the presidency ("President Grover Cleveland answered the White House telephone each time it rang"), part heartfelt elegy for a functioning political system. Mainly, the question being put to the reader is not, "Is Donald Trump wholly unsuited to be president?" (the authors make no secret they take this as understood), but rather, "In what ways is Trump's behaviour in office different from his predecessors and how might his behaviour alter the office after he's gone?"

While acknowledging that Trump possesses nothing approaching a coherent theory of governance, the authors examine Trump's words and actions not just as personal foibles, a term or two on the nation's timeline, but as proposed changes to how the presidency should function in the future. What, the reader is forced to consider, would it mean for America if Trump's view of the office as inesperable from his person--and personal interests--became a generally acceptable position for future candidates to embrace?

Other presidents have lied, but what will an America in which Trump's proposal that presidents should feel free to lie constantly, blatantly, and often pointlessly, without the slightest hint of embarrassment, let alone fear of political consequences, look like?

Not all of the Trumpian "proposals" explored in the book are shifts that necessarily empower the office of the president but the mixedness of this blessing cannot be overstated. For the moment, America, in fact the entire world, likely benefits from the resourcefulness of those unelected bureaucrats and cabinet officials who take papers that should never be signed off the president's desk and who slow walk or flat out ignore orders from the president to "Let's f-king kill him" ("him" being Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria). But what needs to be considered now is how well will this new norm age?

Unelected bureaucrats and cabinet officials are, it is now well-documented, currently serving not as assistants to the president, but as handlers of him. They are--or at least the best of them are--running the country as well as they are able while doing what they can to prevent the "toddler-in-chief" president from getting up to too much mischief.

Ultimately, this transference of responsibility, this subtle and currently accepted as benign negation of the president's autonomy, may prove to be as dangerous to the office as an institution as anything unimpeachable presidents freely abusing their power might manage.

Key to this view of the Trump presidency is the argument that individual presidents can and have dramatically altered the office, often without acknowledging what they were up to, or even necessarily realizing it. Hennessey and Wittes make their argument in meticulous, lawyerly detail, providing a history of how U.S. presidents have changed, or failed to change, the nature of the presidency. It is an institution that is far more reliant on good faith and convention; on the simple belief, for example, that the oath of office has not only meaning, but power. Hennessey and Wittes show us that soft underbelly.

Posted by at January 24, 2020 1:38 PM