The inauguration of President Trump was immediately followed by size comparisons. I’m referring, of course, to the size of the crowd gathered to watch the ceremony, which took on a partisan flavor, as Democrats noted that the turnout for President Obama’s inauguration was much larger, and Republicans complained that the media were misreporting the turnout.
My response was exactly the same as it was in 2013, 2009, 2005, and 2001: extremely disappointed that these are regarded as Big Events at all. The inauguration of a President should not be a grand ceremony full of pomp and circumstance — this makes it seem too much like a coronation.
I generally try to avoid the expression “un-American,” but if anything deserves that label, it’s emulating the trappings of monarchy. That the administration of the oath of office should be a massive ceremony with a parade and cheering crowd as far as the eye can see is all wrong.
Treating a presidential inauguration as a coronation does more than get the symbolism wrong. It actively undermines the constitutional framework, which specifies little power in the executive. Treating presidents as if they were kings creates in the minds of the citizens the impression that presidents are rulers. But that undervalues the power the legislature is supposed to have. In setting up a republican form of government, the framers were deliberately avoiding monarchism, investing the actual lawmaking power in the legislative branch. Too many people think that the president’s job is ruling, and the monarchical public ceremonies are partly responsible for that.
Another reason people think the president is the ruler is that we often see companies run by a “president.” The president of a company typically has “boss” powers that are not analogous to the presidency described by the Constitution.
The actual power of the presidency
Go back and reread Article II of the Constitution. You might be surprised by how little power the executive actually has.
The president cannot make laws, even though he can veto them. He can make certain federal appointments, but only with Senate approval. Any treaty he makes with a foreign power must be ratified by 2/3 of the Senate. In short, the president is expected to operate within the federal government. He’s not supposed to dictate policy or control the country.
Of course, over the last couple decades, the power of the presidency has been gradually increasing. The more power to be boss-like or king-like the president exercises, the more people will be reinforced in their idea that this is proper. To its discredit, the legislature has unfortunately been complicit in acquiescing to this expansion of executive power.
A similar confusion arises when people say he’s “our” commander-in-chief. For any civilian, this is false. He is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. He doesn’t have the Constitutional authority to ‘command’ the rest of us to do anything. Precision about language matters.
He’s not “my president” because I’m not part of the federal government — that’s what he presides over, and his powers are explicitly laid out in the Constitution. By design, it’s nothing at all like being a ruler. We should eschew ceremonial deference that blurs this distinction.