When a diminishing president is a good thing
WASHINGTON — Looking, as prudent people are disinclined to do, on the bright side, there are a few vagrant reasons for cheerfulness, beginning with this: Summer love is sprouting like dandelions. To the list of history’s sublime romances — Abelard and Heloise, Romeo and Juliet, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy — add the torrid affair between Anthony Scaramucci and Donald Trump. The former’s sizzling swoon for the latter is the most remarkable public display of hormonal heat since — here a melancholy thought intrudes — Jeff Sessions tumbled into love with Trump. Long ago. Last year.
Sessions serves at the pleasure of the president, who does not seem pleased. Still, sympathy for Sessions is in order: What is he to do? If dignity concerned him, he would resign; but if it did, he would not occupy a Trump-bestowed office from which to resign. Such are the conundrums of current politics. Concerning which, there is excessive gloom.
“To see what is in front of one’s nose,”
George Orwell wrote, “needs a constant struggle.” An unnoticed reason for cheerfulness is that in one, if only one, particular, Trump is something the nation did not know it needed — a feeble president whose manner can cure the nation’s excessive fixation with the presidency.
Executive power expanded, with only occasional pauses (thank you, Presidents Taft and Coolidge, of blessed memory), throughout the 20th century and has surged in the 21st. After 2001, “The Decider” decided to start a preventive war and to countenance torture prohibited by treaty and statute. His successor had “a pen and a phone,” an indifference to the Constitution’s Take Care Clause (the president “shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed”) and disdain for the separation of powers, for which he was repeatedly rebuked by the Supreme Court.
Fortunately, today’s president is so innocent of information that Congress cannot continue deferring to executive policymaking. And because this president has neither a history of party identification nor an understanding of reciprocal loyalty, congressional Republicans are reacquiring a constitutional — a Madisonian — ethic. It mandates a prickly defense of institutional interests, placing those interests above devotion to parties that allow themselves to be defined episodically by their presidents.
Furthermore, today’s president is doing invaluable damage to Americans’ infantilizing assumption that the presidency magically envelops its occupant with a nimbus of seriousness. After the president went to West Virginia to harangue some (probably mystified) Boy Scouts about his magnificence and persecutions, he confessed to Ohioans that Lincoln, but only Lincoln, was more “presidential” than he. So much for the austere and reticent first president, who, when the office was soft wax, tried to fashion a style of dignity compatible with republican simplicity.
Fastidious people who worry that the president’s West Virginia and Ohio performances — the alpha male as crybaby — diminished the presidency are missing the point, which is: For now, worse is better. Diminution drains this office of the sacerdotal pomposities that have encrusted it. There will be 42 more months of this president’s increasingly hilarious-beyond-satire apotheosis of himself, leavened by his incessant whining about his tribulations (“What dunce saddled me with this silly attorney general who takes my policy expostulations seriously?”). This protracted learning experience, which the public chose to have and which should not be truncated, might whet the public’s appetite for an adult president confident enough to wince at, and disdain, the adoration of his most comically groveling hirelings.
Speaking of Scaramucci, and in his defense: His love interest, the president, was elected for his persona rather than his principles. Hence there is a vacuum at the center of the person who is at the center of the country’s absurdly president-centric conception of government. Therefore, loyalty inevitably manifests itself as sycophancy. Nevertheless, the smitten Scaramucci is himself evidence of something encouraging: Upward social aspiration is still as American as Jay Gatsby.
When plighting his troth to Trump, Scaramucci repeatedly confessed his “love” for his employer, thereby exceeding Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s comparatively pallid testimonial to the president’s “superhuman” health. Scaramucci grew up in Port Washington, the Long Island community that is East Egg in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” Gatsby lived in West Egg, yearning to live across the water, where shone the beckoning green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. Scaramucci’s ascent to a glory surpassing even that available in East Egg shows that the light on the lectern in the White House press room is, at last, something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.