September 16, 2019

Men Who Would Be King

By Isiah Smith | Aug. 26, 2017

There’s seems to be something in the mysterious makeup of the American mind that longs for a time when kings ruled, and the people followed with blind allegiance.

You can see it in our morbid fascination with the British royal family, and the continued deification of Princess Diana.

It’s evident in the loose talk about a Bush “dynasty,” and before that, the idle dreams of a Kennedy dynasty, or Camelot. At his death, many otherwise respectful publications dubbed, JFK Jr. “America’s Prince.” Even now, some Americans see Michelle Obama and Chelsea Clinton as viable presidential candidates, apparently because of their last names. This is how royal powers are passed down as a family heirloom.

“Kings, queens, and princesses are crowned almost daily in the entertainment world. The thirst for royalty in American life appears literally unquenchable.

America almost got its wish in George Washington, but when offered royal powers, he wisely declined — not once, but twice.

In 1776 and 1777, the young American Republic gave Washington virtually unlimited authority to wage war against the British. After the war, he wisely relinquished those powers. 

After years of conventional British rule, America seemed poised to perpetuate the notion of the divine rights of kings. The powers that be pleaded with Washington to accept the vast political powers that usually followed military victories — perhaps even becoming the first King of America.

Washington rejected the offer as inappropriate and dishonorable, insisting he had fought the war not for his self-aggrandizement but to preserve the American Republic.

After two terms as president, he declined the offer of a third. His popularity remained high; even after John Adam’s term, Washington was urged to serve a third term.

Washington wasn’t the smartest of the Founding Fathers — far from it. He kept good company, however, and some of their better attributes apparently rubbed off on him.

America’s first president was a product of the Enlightenment, a period that produced men of high ideals and noble aspirations (not always evident in their actions). The Enlightenment brought political modernization to the West, introduced democratic values, and emphasized reason over superstition and science over blind faith.

Since the middle of the 20th century, we have elected men (always men) who, unlike the first president, sought power over reason and openly attacked democratic institutions. Sadly, we have done little to rein them in.

The “imperial powers” vested in the president date back to the Cold War and grew with each successive president leading up to Nixon. Remember, it was Nixon who said, “When the president does it, that means it’s not illegal,” but it didn’t end there.

Truman and Lyndon Johnson argued that the president held vast inherent powers beyond the Constitution that empowered him to defy the will of Congress. Those powers must be invisible, for I cannot find a hint of them in my studies of the Constitution.

In 1992 Dick Cheney lamented, “I have repeatedly seen an erosion of the powers and the ability of the president of the United States to do his job. [Therefore] I feel an obligation to pass on [the executive branch] in better shape than we found them to our successors.”

That Cheney expanded the power of the presidency cannot be gainsaid. In “Takeover: The Return of The Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy,” Charles Savage noted that Cheney/Bush reduced the authority of Congress and the courts and expanded the ability of the president to govern with maximum flexibility and minimum oversight. They enlarged the zone of secrecy around the executive branch and nominated judges who favored a stronger presidency.

Barack Obama inherited a vastly empowered executive branch. Rather than dismantle or rein it in, Obama spent two terms exploiting those new powers to, among other things, order drone strikes at will against nations with which we were not at war.  Americans citizens living in other countries were ordered killed in secret. An abuse of power does not depend upon who is doing the abusing.

In “The Road to Serfdom,” Friedman A. Hayek wrote that seldom do we lose our freedoms all at once; it’s a gradual process, and you hardly notice it’s missing until it’s gone.

You see where this is going, right?

The Americans who trusted Bush and Obama to do the right thing must now ask, “What happens when we elect an unstable individual who, in the words of The Economist, is “politically inept, morally barren and temperamentally unsuited for office and … the solo star of his own drama?”

Recent that presidents have not been the products of the Enlightenment; rather, they are products of what I call the “Disenlightenment.” The Enlightenment was the beginning of the Age of Reason that emphasized reason over superstition. Using the power of the press, Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke, Isaac Newton, and Voltaire not only questioned accepted knowledge but also spread new ideas about openness, investigation, and religious tolerance. The Enlightenment embraced inquiry and critical thinking in place of myths and superstitions.

The Age of Disenlightment embraces myths, conspiracy theories, and lies that masquerade as truth. It also marks the end of faith in the power of democratic institutions and a return to the cult of personality that prevailed when men were kings. I submit that institutions are more reliable and stable than men. Men can be mean-spirited, petty, and uninterested in the general welfare.  Such a “leader” with the power of the imperial presidency presents a danger that threatens the nation’s core values. Democratic institutions have withstood the test of time, fashions, and cultural trends.

Having accepted previous presidents’ power-grab accretion because their ideas and policies reflected our own, we might now be reaping the bitter harvest of our inaction and acquiescence.

This present moment is a dangerous one, fraught with poison and peril.

Isiah Smith Jr. is a former newspaper columnist for the Miami Times. He worked as a psychotherapist before attending the University of Miami Law School, where he also received a master’s degree in psychology. In December 2013, he retired from the Department of Energy’s Office of General Counsel, where he served as a deputy assistant general counsel for administrative litigation and information law. Isiah lives in Traverse City with his wife, Marlene.

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