My generation was taught in grade school that the president is the godhead of our civic religion. We were made to revere men like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and John F. Kennedy, to apportion our history by their terms in office, to regale them with the title “leader of the free world.”
We were also instructed that any one of us could be president of the United States.
Those two facts, which verge on the paradoxical, make up the mystique of the modern presidency, and they have long confounded observers of our politics. In his novel “Democracy,” Henry Adams tweaked this tension with epithets, calling the president “the democratic potentate” and his office “the republican throne.” Others have (rightly) bemoaned the power of the American executive, warning of a “cult of the presidency” that’s destabilized the delicate balance of governmental authorities established in the Constitution.
Nonetheless, today the president is what we’ve made him, powerful and populist. That’s why the current efforts to undermine the election of Donald Trump are so appalling.
In recent weeks, two of Trump’s presidential opponents have signed on to futile recount efforts even though the chance of upending his Electoral College majority is about as likely as the Cleveland Browns winning the Super Bowl. A member of the House of Representatives has urged electors to defy orders and not support Trump. A prominent political commentator has called Trump a “usurper” and accused him of spearheading a Russian coup.
It’s that last one that excites so many pundits. The revelation that Russia tried to throw the election to Trump wasn’t much of a revelation at all, seeing as it was leaked by faceless CIA functionaries, no national intelligence estimate has yet been produced on the subject, and both the FBI and the director of national intelligence disagree. But that hasn’t stopped many from yelping that there’s ironclad evidence of foreign interference, and then leaping to the most malarial lily pad in the fever swamp by insinuating that Trump only won the election because his pal Vlad wanted him there.
This is abject nonsense—if you want to talk about fake news, here’s the platinum single of the genre. Even if the Russians did favor Trump, their hack-and-release mischief was limited largely to arcane emails within the Democratic National Committee, whose exposure did little other than humiliate John Podesta and validate claims, already believed by approximately everyone, that the party had favored Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders during its primary. It’s also been alleged that Russia paid Internet trolls to slander Clinton, but the online hordes would have been there with or without Moscow’s money.
Any cyberwarfare waged against Americans is a problem and needs to be investigated. But that does not a Manchurian candidate make. To the contrary, the goal of Moscow’s extensive meddling—it appears to be targeting France’s presidential election next—is to fuel the West’s crisis of confidence in its institutions. By undermining the president-elect, by intoning that his ascendance is illegitimate, by chipping away at an institution that we’ve made our most sacrosanct, it’s Trump’s critics who are furthering Moscow’s aims. That they’re too hysterical and obtuse to notice only makes their useful idiocy all the more frustrating.
I was proudly #NeverTrump during the primary. I didn’t think Trump was qualified for higher office and I still don’t. Maybe it’s because I was baptized in our civic religion or maybe it’s just that I’m an incorrigible optimist, but now that the election is over, I’ve reset the scoreboard and am willing to cheer for my next president. If he does claim power that isn’t his or just behaves like a boor, I’ll be the first to call him out. He certainly needs to start attending his damned intelligence briefings and get the hell off Twitter. But in the meantime, he’s been elected by this byzantine republican mechanism of ours, and I genuinely hope he proves himself worthy of his office.
Trump’s pathological detractors refuse to make that same concession because it’s easier for them to blame a convenient villain like Putin than accept that the bromides they’ve been selling for decades have lost working-class voters. So on they fume. I believe last time around we called such people “birthers.”