When Arthur Schlesinger Jr. offered his take on the concept of the Imperial Presidency in his 1973 book of that same name, he focused squarely on the office of the United States presidency itself. Schlesinger argued that in the post-World War II era, the office of the presidency had accumulated enormous power — first in the theater of war, then in the domestic arena — that relied on extra-constitutional authority, subverting the intent of the writers of the Constitution.
Of course, Schlesinger wrote in the shadow of the Nixon presidency and the Vietnam War, two case studies in presidential abuse and overreach. In the time since, however, the focus of discussion regarding the Imperial Presidency has expanded beyond the office to the nation’s expectations of the presidency.
Beyond his constitutional roles as head of state, head of the executive branch and commander-in-chief of the armed forces, we demand that the president negotiate the vicissitudes of war like Franklin Roosevelt, legislate as effectively as Lyndon Johnson, communicate as well as Ronald Reagan and be as personable as John F. Kennedy. He is to be the uniter-in-chief, comforter-in-chief, economist-in-chief and generalissimo all at the same time. These roles conspire to render the presidency unwieldy for anyone to execute effectively.
I am sympathetic to Schlesinger's argument.
Being president is really hard, especially when you can only ever expect about half the country to support you at any given time. Nevertheless, in the Trump era, this sympathy toward the office's difficulties has been co-opted by the Republican pundit class in its defense of the president. In the process, the concept of the Imperial Presidency has been transmuted into a disturbing rhetorical habit that essentially grades the president on a curve.
This is the frame of argument: If you can find any particular person or group in any corner of the Union who engages in similar conduct to the president, the president’s conduct is excused. The president’s conduct, then, is marked based on what everyone else’s conduct is.
I say that this is a rhetorical habit because that is all it is: a tool that distracts but never actually engages the substance of the matter at hand. The term we have for this stratagem, whataboutism, emerged during the Cold War to describe the Soviets’ tendency to respond to American criticism of their human rights abuses with: “And you’re lynching Negroes.” Were Americans lynching black people? Yes. Was that wrong? Yes. But both of those things being true does not negate the horror of Soviet abuses. Invoking "Bad Thing Two" in response to "Bad Thing One" does not depreciate the badness of either "Bad Thing." Two things can be bad at the same time.
When President Donald Trump encourages violence against Democrats or labels the press the “enemy of the people,” it has a stochastic effect: individually random who acts on his words, but probabilistically predictable that someone will. This past October, the individually random variables were given names—Cesar Sayoc and Robert Bowers—with tragic effects.
The presidency is hard.
We should be cognizant of its difficulty, and adjust our expectations accordingly. But I reject the "both-sides" rhetoric to which our discourse now falls victim. Donald Trump is not an outside observer, he is the executive head of the federal government. I am unwilling to hold the president of the United States of America to the same standard as the man on the street, or even a backbencher congresswoman. Not when he holds the most powerful office in the world. Not when he has tens of millions of followers on Twitter. Not when he has a voting base 63 million people strong.
We are better than this. Our president should be too.
Contact contributor Gabe Josephs at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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