Trump Is Breaking the Presidency to Save His Re-Election
(Bloomberg Opinion) — President Donald Trump’s encouragement of protests against states’ stay-in-place orders is un-presidential in the colloquial sense: it’s unbecoming of a president. But Trump’s latest gambit is un-presidential in a much deeper sense, too. It contradicts the very constitutional justification for why we have a president in the first place.The whole point of the presidency is to have an elected official who represents the interests of the entire country, not of a specific state or electoral district. That is, the purpose of the presidency is unification. Trump’s goal, to the contrary, is to drive state-by-state division. He’s undermining the very ideal of a unified United States in pursuit of electoral advantage.To understand why we have a president, it’s useful to consider why we don’t have a prime minister. After all, the founding fathers were creating a republic, in which all officials would be elected and nobody would be above the law. If the United States of America was not to have a king, it would have made logical sense for its executive to be a member of the legislature, first among equals.But the framers of the Constitution wanted to create a different version of the separation of powers than Britain’s. The president would not be a king, but he and his executive branch would play some of the role that the king played in the British constitution.And the chief advantage of a king, according to a theory that had gained prominence in 18th century Britain, was that he would promote the interests of not merely one faction of the people, but of the whole country. A king who stood for everybody was a “patriot king,” ruling for the greater good of the patria, or nation. “To espouse no party, but to govern like the common father of his people, is so essential to the character of a Patriot King, that he who does otherwise forfeits the title,” wrote Henry St. John, First Viscount Bolingbroke, in his aptly named book, “The Idea of a Patriot King.”The framers of the U.S. Constitution designed a system in which members of both the House of Representatives and the Senate were chosen from the states. Although the framers expressed the hope that these legislators would think of the whole nation, not just the districts they represented, they were also realists. They understood that members of Congress would want to be re-elected, and would therefore favor the interests of their home states and districts.The president, in contrast, was elected nationally. He (along with the vice-president) was the only elected official who could claim to have been chosen by the whole people. The president was therefore supposed to be a patriot president, above party or regional faction.It turned out to be too much to ask for presidents to eschew political parties. Even George Washington, whom the framers expected to pull off that lofty goal, came to be seen as a partisan Federalist by his second term in office.Yet presidents have, for the most part, managed to govern with an eye to national interests, rather than regional ones. That may be attributed mostly to their desire to be re-elected, which ordinarily takes a national coalition. But it also stems from the nature of the office itself: The president is the chief executive of the whole country, and usually understands himself as such.The classic example is Andrew Jackson, whom Trump claims to consider a hero. Jackson was partisan and ideological, not to mention an advocate of killing Native Americans and driving them from their ancestral lands. But when South Carolina tried to nullify federal law, threatening the union, Jackson firmly rejected the very idea, going so far as to intimate that any serious attempt at disunion would be met with vigorous force. Jackson put union first.Trump, however, is now doing the very opposite. Instead of embracing the idea of a unified national policy on stay-in-place orders, he is fomenting protests that are meant to force certain states to break the mold by opening sooner than others. The aim of the protests is precisely to create a national patchwork, with different states adopting different policies. And Trump’s motives seem straightforwardly partisan: he wants to motivate his base, and he wants to take credit for any opening that eventually occurs.The problem isn’t that Trump wants to get re-elected. It’s that to get there, he is actively seeking to break any semblance of coordinated, unified national policy. He is, it seems, prepared to break the traditional presidency in order to hold onto the office.If the presidency becomes a bully pulpit not to hold the country together but to break it apart, we’d be better off having no president at all. Somewhere, the shade of Andrew Jackson is roiling with disapproval.This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and host of the podcast “Deep Background.” He is a professor of law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His books include “The Three Lives of James Madison: Genius, Partisan, President.” For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com/opinionSubscribe now to stay ahead with the most trusted business news source.©2020 Bloomberg L.P.