WASHINGTON, January 19, 2017 — “President Trump.” It has an oddly surreal ring to it. After two months of preparation, the idea of a Trump presidency still seems wildly improbable.
“President Trump.” Depending on who says them, the words are tinged with anxiety or excitement, hope or dread. A storm is coming to Washington, and it will leave the brisk, electric smell of ozone in the air and destruction in its wake. The prospect is exciting and terrifying.
Some of us chase storms and glory in their power; others hide from them in shelters. Stay in bed and close the blinds if you like, and refuse to listen to Trump’s inaugural speech, but there’s no hiding from this storm. So throw up your arms in the wind and feel the energy flow and hope the storm doesn’t reduce you to a pulp.
“President Trump.” It almost feels like summoning one of the old, eldritch gods to say it. “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn!”
Or say “President Trump” three times in the mirror and see if he suddenly appears and deports you.
Some of my friends say they feel like they’re waking up from a nightmare to find that they’re in an even worse nightmare; other friends are overjoyed at the end of the Obama interregnum. One thing they all agree on is that America will be different tomorrow than it is today.
It will be, but not as different as they expect.
Vast swaths of the electorate have abandoned the secular religion laid out in the Constitution to pursue popular heresies: the cult of the presidency, the cult of the Supreme Court, the cult of Washington. They believe that salvation will come from the White House, a Supreme Court opinion or the regulatory state.
Those are the cults of people who want what they want now, and who believe that the country can be changed by command. They look to the president as a father, the source of light for his children.
They forget that We the People are the source of power and authority, that we are the source of light—if we choose it.
The president is far less powerful than these people believe. He isn’t a prophet or a king, he isn’t our father. As President Obama learned, he can’t stop the oceans from rising or heal the planet. President Trump can command the economy to grow and manufacturing jobs to return, but so can I, and so can any man. But will they come when he does call for them? Trump might as well join Obama in calling spirits from the vasty deep.
Trump can have an enormous impact for the good on our economy, but not by commanding it. The president’s greatest power isn’t coercive power at all, but influence. He can cajole, inspire and take to the bully pulpit. When our government is functioning as it should, his power is in his ability to lead, not his ability to command.
The giddy celebration over the end of the Obama administration will yield to the same disappointment that ultimately hit those who celebrated its beginning. Obama discovered the constraints on his power, finally doing much less than he promised and than his supporters expected.
But it was still a lot. The presidency, after all, retains enormous power, and as long as their expectations are tempered by an understanding of that power’s limits, Trump’s supporters still have cause for excitement, and his opponents cause for fear.
Everyone can guess at what the Trump administration will bring over the next four years; no one knows. After the election, I threw my crystal ball in the wood chipper and forswore prophecy. But the air crackles now with possibilities for change, and change there will be, for better and worse and indifferent. The only guarantee is that everyone will be disappointed by something.
The change that America most needs, it won’t get. It’s a change in the people, not in the government. Our politics has become a form of religious warfare, with people no longer treating their ideological opponents as fellow citizens of good will, but as depraved enemies who must be destroyed. We don’t assume the best of each other, but the worst. Our politics lacks generosity of spirit and mutual affection.
So we will continue to fight bitter battles over the White House, and for the sake of shaping the courts, pursuing our heretical political cults and wiping our feet on the Constitution. Neither Obama nor Trump is the cause of that, though Obama could have moved to change it and didn’t. Trump almost certainly won’t, either.
I look forward to the Trump presidency with fearful excitement and joyful dread, expecting change and not knowing what it will be. But there’s also resignation, because whatever the change is, it will be empty. Only the government is changing; America remains the same.