The Empty President: How America Chose Decline.
The Greek word “adístaktos” means one who is ruthless or simply contemptuous of what is right or honorable. It is the closest description that I can find for the current Administration.
Unlike a mere “kakistocracy” which is the “rule of the most incompetent” or least capable, we are instead experiencing a regime of what would seem to be Donald Trump’s daily revenge visited upon the majority of the American people — fueled perhaps by the need for public self-worth that will likely never arrive in any of our lifetimes.
Perhaps, it is “payback” for becoming the third president in our history to face an impeachment jury in the Senate.
But, it must be plain even to a non-historian such as Donald Trump that he will be ranked below Andrew Johnson, James Buchanan and Herbert Hoover not simply as a clear presidential failure, but as the sole occupant in a new category — a president who persistently pointed the Nation in a destructive and dangerous direction — instead of toward wholeness or progress.
Whatever one might say about Richard Milhous Nixon and the paranoia and jealousies that likely paved the way for Nixon’s Watergate’s abuses, Nixon had a basic world and domestic view that America could be a positive force on the World stage.
And Nixon’s domestic policies however reactionary at the time were supported by a longstanding conservative consensus about governing — pro-business; individual rights; adherence to certain basic concepts about the validity of institutions; and even a belief in certain safety net programmatic goals. Remember, it was Nixon who proposed basic minimum income and who started the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970.
The conservative consensus of government as a force for public improvement as a part of a larger vision of liberty simply overlapped with the liberal tradition of social welfare and advancement born of the New Deal Era.
Yet, both arguably had their origins in the Progressive Movement of Lincoln Steffens, Upton Sinclair, Robert LaFollette and Theodore Roosevelt himself.
It was the Progressive and Reform movements that would curb the late 19th century abuses of the robber barons and monopolists, give birth to the conservation movement, and create better social conditions for the influx of immigrants and give hope to African Americans to plant the seeds of a Civil Rights Movement.
W.E. B. DuBois would start his “Niagara Movement” in 1905 as precursor to the N.A.A.C.P. And, President Roosevelt likely intentionally antagonized white supremacists by inviting Booker Washington to the White House for dinner.
It is the rare president — indeed perhaps only one other president, Andrew Johnson — who has ever set out to openly defy the progress of the Nation and to call up the spirits of divisiveness and calumny for his own political purposes.
Even the presidents who engaged in the politics of reaction — Ronald Reagan — sought to honey-coat their policy initiatives with the rhetoric and language of progress and unity. Trump does neither.
Trump has chosen the path of “adístaktos” or contempt for the “body politick” itself. But this contempt is not rooted in policy or political philosophy and certainly not in party identification.
In reality, Trump has no true party identification or principles. Nor does he seemingly possess a constitutional philosophy.
When Herbert Hoover refused to act boldly during the first years of the Great Depression, one could easily pin his reluctance on his stated belief in “rugged individualism.”
Yet, historians and public observers knew Hoover had compassion — he had provided food relief to an entire continent after the First World War.
Even Buchanan, who apparently was perplexed by the challenges of sectional conflict before the Civil War, was reputed to have had experience as a bureaucrat and reportedly displayed his personal kindness by purchasing slaves and then manumitting them.
Trump shows no such tendencies — seemingly knowing that his only “skill” is to divide and antagonize; to prevaricate and to deny; to blame and to embellish.
Thus, for Trump there exists no overarching view of the public progress and unity of the American experiment. Hence, Trump reverts to a mythic non-existent (and unspecified) time when America was purportedly “great.”
But, when searched for, this time cannot be found for the place in history is nonexsistent.
It is the pliability of American myth-making, as historians Gerster and Cords have described, that permits Trump to repeatedly lie to his followers about a “nowhereland” of a once and past great America — while Trump himself engages in a ruthless policy of a divisive rapine and corruption.
It is in the nature of both the artificial myth of a “Great America,” before any tolerance of racial or gender equality, which serves to justify ongoing acts and schemes of corruption as justifiable efforts to reclaim the lost ground of “freedom.”
For Trump and his adherents, this is the only plan or program that should be followed. No other objectives ever need to be announced.
And for those who have the temerity to attempt to impose constitutional limitations or the memory of historical norms on Trump or his adherents, they become the instantaneous opponents of the mythical liberty — of the great age Trump would seek to restore.
Meanwhile, there is plenty of plunder and spoils for “us” the “winners”.
In becoming the president of ruthlessness, of “adistaktos,” Trump has collapsed the expectations of the presidency and of government itself. Government will only be what he chooses it should be.
So if Trump believes the pandemic crisis should accede to his ambition to “reopen” the economy, then the only true and legitimate role of government is reopening America.
Any other option becomes a denial of liberty — regardless of the valid claims of public health experts.
Consequently, the institutional (and constitutional) commands of the presidency as an office of public trust become collapsed — if not entirely evaporated. Instead, the constitutional office simply becomes the “empty presidency” — without duties, or obligations, or constraints, and perhaps without law. But nevertheless still containing all of its powers.
An empty presidency is, of course, no longer recognizable as a valid or healthy branch within our own — or any other — modern constitutional republic. It is, however, the dawning of the growth of something else — something both very old and very dangerous.
Albert Turner Goins
Sent from my iPhone