Since President Trump was inaugurated in January we’ve heard an on-going discussion about how to interpret and understand Trump in the context of other authoritarian leaders around the world and from the past. That is an important conversation because that is, in most respects, the proper context in which to understand Trump.
But there’s another prism which has become increasingly clear over the last four months – that is the model of monarchy and the incapacitated king. I noted recently that the U.S. president is, largely by design, in key respects something like an elected monarch, albeit one bounded by two theoretically co-equal branches of government. The President isn’t president because he enjoys the support of his party or congressional majorities. He is president because being president means that he has a panoply of rights, prerogatives and powers as a person.
This is an altogether different model from the Westminster parliamentary system and its various permutations and derivations in which the prime minister is a creature of the legislative branch and in theory, and not infrequently in practice, can be removed from office when they lose support. Like a king, the President is president by right – not by divine right but by right of election. Other than impeachment or death, nothing can take those powers away from them.
But monarchies, even absolute ones, have always had to deal with the vagaries of genetics and human frailty. Sometimes the person who is king simply is not capable of doing the job. A child monarch will usually have a regency, a council which does the king things in the King’s name. In other cases, the king or queen has a radical mental deficiency or goes insane. In these cases, in history, the monarch usually doesn’t stop being monarch. Others are simply brought in to act in their name.
Now, my point here is not to start another conversation about whether Trump is crazy or has some psychological condition. My point is that he is clearly incapable, just in the nature of who he is, from doing many of the things expected of presidents. He routinely ignores the advice of his lawyers, he contradicts key administration arguments. He routinely goes on Twitter rage benders that create endless headaches for staff, disrupt administration policy and may even in some cases constitute or be prima facie evidence of crimes.
Most revealingly, in the last week, multiple top advisers and cabinet secretaries have said, in so many words, that President Trump does not speak for the administration in various policy areas. There has been an understandable, if still risible, effort to make the President’s tweets into some kind of meaningless word associations or gibberish that actually don’t mean anything and which shouldn’t be taken seriously for understanding what the administration is doing. Sebastian Gorka, Kellyanne Conway and others have made this argument in just the last 24 hours. Over the weekend, the Secretary of Defense asked allies in Asia to “bear with us” when pressed on just what the President was doing.
You’ll note that in Britain the reference is usually to “the Crown,” which is the governmental institution of the monarchy embodied by the person of the reigning monarch. But they are not the same. Things are somewhat different now since the current monarchy (and most other global monarchies) gives little actual power to the monarch. But this distinction between ‘the Crown’ and the specific human who embodies the monarchy at a given moment is one of longstanding and can be found across the ages. Again, it’s for a simple reason: if the monarch holds their power in their person, you need a framework for what you do when the actual person isn’t capable of doing the job.
One example of this is George III, the British monarch during the American Revolution, most known to American audiences from the movie “The Madness of King George.” George may have suffered from the genetic disorder porphyria or what we now call bipolar disorder. But for significant periods of time over his decades long reign he was forced to withdraw from active kinging because of the onset of his affliction. The bouts, whatever their cause, would eventually pass. In this sense at least, his prognosis was more promising than President Trump’s.
Again, whether the President is ‘crazy’ isn’t a point I’m trying to get into. What is notable is that we are seeing in real time a White House and an administration trying to force a distinction between what a notional ‘President Trump’ has set as policy (usually meaning the policies key advisers have articulated) and the actual person Donald Trump who we see on Twitter and occasionally in unscripted press settings saying and doing things that often totally contradict his own policies.
Beyond formal policies, he frequently shows himself driven by motives or desires and rages that are entirely the opposite of what his advisers claim. He fired James Comey because of Rod Rosenstein’s recommendation – until Trump himself said he was mad about Russia and would have fired Comey no matter what Rosenstein said. His national security team cheered his renewal of America’s cornerstone alliance, NATO, even as they were apparently aghast when he deepened NATO’s crisis by refusing to pledge his support for the mutual defense commitment which is its central premise.
Where this goes, it is impossible for me at least to say. While the American president has monarchical characteristics, it is not a monarchy. While it is understood that the President sometimes has policies which he and hopefully in the future she may not understand in full depth or fully know about, the US system is based on at least a broad belief that the President is a real person, who has some relationship to the person on whose behalf advisers and cabinet secretaries claim to speak. This last really bad week seems to have gotten us to a new point in which administration leaders are openly saying that the President doesn’t speak for himself or his administration. Either in people’s understanding of what Presidents are supposed to do or in the humiliations these descriptions likely amount to for Trump himself, this does not seem like a sustainable solution to the Trump problem.