The latest object of political media fascination emerged during the Golden Globes, when a speech by Oprah Winfrey led to wildfire speculation that she would run for president in 2020.
For some, the solution to one unprepared celebrity billionaire president is to immediately elect another one. Before this sort of thing becomes the norm, with America’s presidency being a plaything for mass media personalities to pass around, we should stop it by the only means possible: we should abolish the presidency.
This Has Been a Long Time Coming
The presidency has slowly become an unserious office. During the Cold War, much of the importance of the chief executive’s job concerned the constant threat of worldwide nuclear war. That was serious business, and we elected serious men.
That is not to say that huge majorities considered each candidate elected in those years the best choice. The administrations of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon are still controversial today. But even our most outsider-ish president in those years, Ronald Reagan, had spent eight years as governor of a large state and several years as a union leader. They all had credentials.
Things started to get silly once the Soviets went belly-up. Candidate Bill Clinton’s saxophone-playing and publicly discussing his underwear preferences were considered undignified, but he was also a long-serving governor with a serious understanding of political issues. Likewise, George W. Bush may have spent his first 40 years on earth as a rich playboy, but his governorship of Texas and serious commitment to conservative causes was obvious, and in his administration experienced adults were in charge.
If the idea of an Oprah-for-president boom based on one good speech seems crazy, remember that state senator Barack Obama became the future of the Democratic Party based on one good speech he gave at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. When the American people elected him at the next election after four inconsequential years in the U.S. Senate, Obama was not our most inexperienced president ever, but he was on that end of the scale. On the other hand, even if his policies were often wrong-headed and naïve, aside from some occasional new media silliness, his administration walked and talked a lot like a typical American presidency.
This brings us to Donald Trump. The slippery slope from leader of the free world to celebrity-in-chief got a lot steeper in 2016. And we have only ourselves to blame. When asked to choose between a serious (if boring and venal) career politician and a flamboyant showman who promised to smash conventional politics, we chose the latter, first in the Republican primaries and then in the general election.
This is not the path a Cold War America would have chosen. People mock Francis Fukuyama’s pronouncement that the end of the Cold War was the “end of history,” but he was correct in many ways. Many serious issues still confront this nation at home and abroad, but we have become a fundamentally unserious people. The Cold War fight was existential, while the War on Terror, serious though it is, is peripheral. We “won” history; we were rewarded with celebrity.
The Persistence of a Troubling Pattern
Trump was elected as a celebrity and has governed as one. But as long as his election was an aberration, it posed no danger to the republic. We have weathered good presidents and bad, normal ones and oddballs. The nation endures. The republic survives.
That is does so is largely because it is a republic. A dictator can ruin a country all on his own; a president needs help. No matter who we put in the White House, we may still rely on the separation of powers that are the legacy of a founding generation distrustful of centralized authority.
That is the idea, at least. In truth, the executive branch has grown ever-more powerful since the days of the New Deal. Congress has willingly ceded much of its constitutional authority to the executive branch, and more and more of the apparatus of government is under the president’s control.
Given the Left’s reaction to Trump’s inexperience (among other flaws), one could be forgiven for thinking they meant to advocate a return to the serious presidency and, perhaps, a return to a more vigorous separation of powers and embrace of federalism. Commitment to the latter two ideals often vanish once a party is in power, but pushing back against the celebrity presidency seemed, until now, to be something the Democrats would make a central point of their 2020 platform. If that, too, is just a cudgel to use against the current president and not a commitment to a serious idea, we may be in more trouble than we thought.
Neither King Nor Kaiser
If the both parties persist in anointing whichever media star they think will win the most votes, we may have to take a hard look at why we even have presidents, and whether they should have as much power as they do. Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist Papers that “Energy in the Executive is a leading character in the definition of good government,” but he also assumed a minimum of qualification for that future chief executive.
Until recently, he predicted correctly on that point. Now the prospect of a less qualified, more powerful executive beckons, and the idea of an energetic dilettante permanently residing in the White House should send a shudder down the spine of any American.
These are the same arguments advanced by credulous American Anglophiles who argue for an American monarchy. The usual arguments separating the head of state from the head of government, something most nations have already done. The head of government would do the political things and take the grief for it; the head of state would preside over non-political situations, be beloved as a symbol of the nation, and have almost no power.
Such as separation does not demand a monarch. Some part of humanity’s lizard brain does, deep down, crave the rule of a king. But the higher functions of our minds must remind us, time and again, that choosing a ruler—even a mostly powerless one—based on accident of birth is one of the dumbest things we have ever done as a species.
It is no coincidence that the only nations with kings or queens are ones that have had them for a very long time. No new nation is created with a monarch, and old ones only survive as long as the people are not bothered enough to kick them out.
But there are nations that separate head of state from head of government within a democratic republic. Germany, Ireland, and India all elect presidents whose job is very much like a king’s, but without all of the baggage of centuries of monarchical oppression.
This is a job that Trump, Oprah, or Mark Zuckerberg could do well, because it has almost no qualifications. Even fouling it up very badly would have no real consequence to the republic. And when such figurehead presidents do get into mischief, they are easily pushed aside and replaced, as Germany did with President Christian Wulff in 2012. Never heard of him? There’s a good reason for that: his job doesn’t matter.
Oprah Is Nowhere Near Qualified Enough
Politics is its own profession, and talented people from other walks of life often fail there. As amazing as Oprah’s rise to billionaire media icon is, it speaks little as to her qualifications for the highest office in the land. The same could be said of the talent required to preside over a real estate empire. Politics is not business, nor is it charity. Governance of a free people requires a separate set of skills, often separate even from the ability to win elections.
Oprah is, however, well-qualified to serve as figurehead president, just as Trump is, according to Timothy B. Lee’s 2016 Vox article on the subject. President Dwayne Johnson or President Beyoncé could preside over non-controversial events like launching a new aircraft carrier or opening a national park without damaging their considerable popularity. Meanwhile, Speaker Ryan and Majority Leader McConnell would fight the political battles and use their experience and knowledge of the political process to lead the country on controversial issues until they are replaced by equally political Democrats.
There are other options to a powerful unitary executive. Rome elected two consuls to lead it, both of whom had to agree before taking action. Many of the former American colonies of Great Britain showed their distrust in monarchy during the Revolution by creating executive councils instead of governors.
In Pennsylvania’s 1776 Constitution, for example, a council of 12 was elected to staggered three-year terms, with the council then electing a president from among its own members. Almost all of the executive powers were vested in the council, not in its president. This job would not appeal to celebrities.
Electing Trump then electing Oprah would prove that we, as a nation, cannot be trusted to choose our national leaders. Our view of government’s role has become deeply unserious, and we no longer put serious men and women in charge of it. Let’s save the country from ourselves. Before keeping the White House as a reality show, we should abolish the presidency.