Columnist Don Robinson: Trump presides over nation in profound crisis

  • President Donald Trump pauses during a meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office of the White House, on March 20, in Washington.  AP FILE PHOTO

Published: 3/21/2018 9:42:17 PM

Chuck Todd, anchor of “Meet the Press,” said this week that people are beginning to wonder if our governing institutions can withstand what the president is trying to do to them.

Another wag claimed that the present administration looked more like a squad of cheerleaders than a “team of rivals” (alluding to Doris Kearns’s brilliant term for Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet).

Meanwhile the current president glories in the “chaos” which troubles so many other observers, saying he enjoys hearing their dissident views. Such talk calls to mind our nation’s two giants of political leadership, Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Some people think Lincoln burst out of nowhere onto the national scene in the 1850s. Begging to differ, Sidney Blumenthal’s biography details Lincoln’s apprenticeship as a member of the Illinois Legislature; his close study of his idol and mentor Henry Clay; and the deep lessons learned during his single term in Congress, during the run-up to the Mexican American War of 1846.

Indeed, Lincoln’s whole adult life revealed his commitment to the vocation of political leadership. By the time he came to the White House in 1861, he was a seasoned politician.

As for FDR, he did tolerate, even cultivated a measure of chaos among his advisers. He found it stimulating to surround himself with strong, opinionated, even cantankerous aides. He was a masterful, deeply experienced political leader.

Before contracting polio, he had served as a state senator in New York and as assistant secretary of the Navy. In 1920, he was his party’s nominee for vice president. In 1921, he contracted polio. Seven years later, he was elected governor of New York. His pre-White House experience was more like Ronald Reagan’s than Donald Trump’s.

Compared to these leaders, our current president is an innocent, a rank amateur. His forays into public life before 2015 (beyond his misadventures as a real-estate developer) were risible. From 2003 to 2015 he hosted a reality television game show called “The Apprentice.” He owned and produced the Miss Universe and Miss USA beauty pageants.

His principal foray into politics involved trying to undermine President Obama by questioning whether he was even qualified to be president, suggesting he was born in Africa.

Trump’s candidacy for the GOP nomination in 2016 drew support from almost no one experienced in political life. The most notable exception was Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, now attorney general and paying a cruel price almost daily for his imperfect loyalty to the president.

Trump now presides over a nation in profound crisis, much of it, though not all, of his own making. He has gravely weakened his own party by his withering contempt for Republicans who deny him the unwavering support and unquestioning loyalty he thinks he deserves. For the steady demeanor we expect of presidents, he substitutes a veneer of unconvincing swagger.

The nation’s crisis is profound, extending deep into its constitutional and political roots. It will require great creativity to fix it. It is comparable to the crisis of the 1850s, leading up to the Civil War, or the period from 1929 to 1933.

Indeed, not since the late 1960s have we been tested as we are now. That crisis ended with Richard Nixon’s resignation. Gerald Ford’s remarks on that occasion deserve special emphasis. “My fellow Americans,” Ford said, “our long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works; our great Republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here, the people rule.”

Now we confront unprecedented challenges, both domestically and globally. Yet our political system is deeply polarized, and our Congress is in a virtual state of paralysis. Our electoral system has, twice within the past two decades, left us with presidents who decisively lost the popular vote and then straightway delivered us into national crises.

Part of our present crisis is constitutional. The distribution of the “war powers” manifestly no longer works as intended. Historian Edward S. Corwin once described the framers’ system as presenting Congress and the president with “an invitational to struggle” for control of the nation’s foreign policy. Modern weaponry and electronic technologies have decisively given the executive branch the upper hand.

Congress attempted to restore the balance with the War Powers Resolution, passed over Nixon’s veto in 1973, but it has not worked. The situation gets worse with every administration, including the last two before Trump’s. Again and again, Congress has shown that it may rail and rant, huff and puff, but it will not or cannot effectively restrain a president in the use of the nation’s armed forces.

The other part of the puzzle of our current situation concerns an aspect of democratic governance that our framers simply ignored, that is, how candidates for the positions they outlined would be nominated.

It didn’t take them long to realize that something needed to be done about this omission. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton spent much of the 1790s organizing the first American party system. It collapsed when Jefferson’s party crushed the opposition and inaugurated the so-called Era of Good Feelings, but that didn’t last long either.

Andrew Jackson’s green revolution and Martin Van Buren’s political genius created the first truly modern political party, the Democratic Party. It centered on a partisan nominating convention, which also framed the party’s platform. Subsequent “reformers” added primaries and other democratizing paraphernalia.

Locally, we are watching a fascinating experiment. Solomon Goldstein-Rose, a brilliant, brazen young politician, is a state representative from Amherst. He has quit the Democratic Party to launch out on his own, apparently seeking to build ad hoc, nonpartisan coalitions to craft policy for our commonwealth. Good luck with that!

It is not clear (to me, at least) exactly what he has in mind, beyond capitalizing on current disgust with gridlock in our nation’s politics. How will his scheme work to transform inchoate popular movements into a system capable of governing this commonwealth, much less the country?

No doubt our parties are riding a tiger these days. But this is not new. The excitement in the Democratic Party is one of the few hopeful signs in our politics, as we all dance to the tune of a would-be autocrat’s Twitter feeds … and pray to be delivered into the vice president’s eagerly waiting hands.

Be careful of what you pray for!

Don Robinson, a retired professor of government and American studies at Smith College, is the author of “Slavery in the Structure of American Politics,” which won the Annisfield-Wolf Award in 1972. His column appears on the fourth Thursday of each month, and he can be reached at


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