Something weird is happening on the American Right. Over at Politico Magazine, Michael Auslin, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, has penned a column titled “America Needs a King.”
Had Auslin’s strange desire not come on the heels of Pat Buchanan’s paean to Vladimir Putin, or an anti-democracy movement being championed by tech libertarians like Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal, one might see this as merely an example of an academic being intellectually provocative. In other words, “trolling” us.
But this isn’t mere trolling. It’s a trend.
Now, there has always been an element of the Catholic Right with monarchical tendencies. But, for a variety of reasons, this fringe idea seems to be gaining some mainstream traction.
Auslin’s fundamental proposal is to create a position above the presidency, to which he assigns the rather Orwellian title “our First Citizen.” This would be a symbolic post meant to unite Americans around something they have in common, even as public opinion is split over our more partisan political officials. “Let America’s presidents be politicians — slinging mud, cutting deals, and knifing others in the back,” he writes. “Just don’t let them pretend they represent all of us.”
This, of course, assumes that the modern negative political environment is a new phenomenon — so new and pressing as to warrant departing from the Founders’ vision of a chief executive. But American politics has always been nasty and divisive; the notion that today’s politics is harsher than ever is revisionist history.
Auslin’s other presumption — that the presidency is somehow too big for any one man now — has some history and utility. Last year, I chided Ryan Lizza for arguing the presidency had become powerless, a suggestion I viewed as meant to absolve President Obama of his failures.
It is interesting that this argument is popping up now. It was bandied about a lot during the presidency of Jimmy Carter, but retreated under Ronald Reagan.
Consider this excerpt from Time magazine in 1986: “Americans heard for years that the presidency had grown too complex for one person to manage, that the office had been crippled. Reagan seems to slide through a presidential day with ease.”
To be sure, confidence in our leaders and institutions has been eroding since Watergate and Vietnam. And while you’re never going to make everyone happy, Reagan proved it is possible to restore faith in government without betraying the Founders’ vision.
Could it be that weak presidents naturally lead us to believe it is the modern office — not the man who occupies it — that is to blame? Instead of tweaking our political system, maybe we just need to change presidents?