The 1980s were the greatest era for made-for-network-TV movies. They laid the foundation for Netflix 30 years before the service launched by testing America’s appetite for the bizarre.
A man becomes president, seemingly tries to tear away at every fiber of the office in an effort to retain power — even at the expense of permanently changing the nature of the office itself.
Not a terrible foundation for a plot line. But would it have made it to the small screen in the 1980s or fallen to the cutting room floor like stories of opinion-controlling computerized machines determining elections and adult film stars caught in webs of political intrigues and cash payments?
As we take a collective breath, look back at the Electoral College seal of approval, and move on to a new four years and a series of new realities and fictions, how have the structural foundations of the office of the president of the United States changed? How accurate is a summation of the last four years of the presidency — as The Atlantic once described it — a president in rebellion against his office?
We should begin with what will be the lasting change in nature of presidential impeachment. Moving forward, a Congress seeking to impeach a president — no matter how righteous the legal foundation of the case — will be well-advised to do a power analysis of the political situation before beginning any proceedings.
While the legislative branch exists in part to check the power of the president, where the party in control of enough votes in the House faces a formidable adversary in the president, and a Senate where the votes to support the House impeachment are an impossibility, the legislature in fact empowers the office of the president.
Impeachment was never intended to simply be a mark on the tenure of a president, it was intended to be a device to remove a president from office when the legal case merited so doing. With the potential for dangerous political fallout from a failed impeachment effort, the Congress of the future may choose to be far more careful under the sphere of influence of a president equally able to rally their party’s support.
What has also changed in the last four years, perhaps irrevocably, are the acceptable boundaries of political discourse in the United States. This is a line, once crossed, that traversing back over becomes a courtesy rather than a dictate.
Even if the next four years and the four years after that are marked by more civil political discourse that reminds us of more civil times, a president choosing to cross the line again will be going back to a place that has already been opened over the past four years. It’s not just the things a president says that matters, it’s how they are said, and the line of political civility can’t be redrawn now that it has been erased.
Part of this level of discourse revolves around how the person occupying the office of the president addresses longstanding structures around the office. One of these is the press. According to the Factba.se monitoring of audio transcripts and social media posts, President Trump has used the phrase “fake news” more than 2,000 times since first tweeting it in December 2016.
Does a president seeking to diminish the press indeed do so or does this vitriolic continuing campaign diminish the office itself?
While this may be an unresolved question for a long time and some argue that the last four years has shown how resilient the office of the president actually is, there may be a stronger counterargument that the office has been corroded.
In a superb 2018 report, “Trump and the US Presidency: The Past, Present and Future of America’s Highest Office,” the University of Sydney’s United States Study Centre observed, only one year into the Trump presidency, that: “For all the confusion, disruption and chaos of Donald Trump’s term thus far, he will continue to possess the immense powers of the American presidency, while also being frustrated by its many constraints.”
Almost three years later, we see that this dynamic tension between the awesome power of the office and a president seemingly on an incessant crash-course to test what he could get away with created a literally corrosive effect on the office.
Steel can corrode when it is placed under too much stress, causing it to crack.
While uniform corrosion is the most common form (where the corrosion occurs over a large surface) perhaps what the last four years have caused is more akin to a type of corrosion known as pitting.
Pitting is one of the most aggressive forms of corrosion. It’s hard to detect or predict and can create a cavity that penetrates steel. It is equally hard to predict the effect of corrosion on the structure built from that steel, but it’s never good, often a surprise and sometimes irreparable.
This is precisely why the effect of the last four years on the nature of the presidency itself can’t be ignored. While the voters have had their say and now the Electoral College has confirmed their will, we may not have a clear picture of the effect on the quality and nature of the presidency for years to come.