Last Saturday, in a private meeting with Republican donors who had gathered at his Mar-a-Lago estate, Donald Trump attacked yet again the basic foundations of American democracy. In his freewheeling and unscripted talk, a recording of which was obtained by CNN, Trump eventually focused his comments on President Xi Jinping of China. He noted Xi’s plan to abolish China’s presidential term limits, and lavished praise on this authoritarian grab at unrestricted power.
“He’s now president for life. President for life,” Trump enthused. “I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot someday.”
Trump’s remarks are chilling for anyone who cares about American-style democracy. Even more concerning are the Palm Beach crowd’s approving laughter and hearty cheers, which reveal the insidious creep of Trumpism’s anti-democratic tendencies into the GOP. They also demonstrate anew Trump’s blatant disregard for custom and the Constitution, two of the chief guardrails of the presidency. In Trump’s comments ― and the fawning response from his enabling audience ― we see again the dangers of this presidency: Trump is not testing the boundaries of his power. He is tearing them down right in front of our eyes.
Trump is not testing the boundaries of his power. He is tearing them down right in front of our eyes.
Those boundaries have a long history. At first, the limit on presidential terms was protected by tradition rather than by law. In deciding not to run for a third term in 1796, George Washington established the unwritten rule that presidents would hold the position no more than twice. Washington knew his popularity could guarantee him an office for life ― but he believed it was important, especially for a young republic, that the nation’s leader demonstrate the limits of his power and protect the presidency from any hint of monarchy or dictatorship.
That tradition held for nearly 150 years, until the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The Great Depression, which had upended so much of American life, also remade Americans’ ideas about the presidency, and in that time of economic devastation FDR sought greater executive power and larger control of the nation’s economy. Millions of Americans supported his move. The New York Herald Tribune’s headline the day after Roosevelt’s first inauguration, in 1933, depicts the nation’s mood in that moment: “For Dictatorship If Necessary.” With that sentiment gaining ground through his first two terms, FDR set tradition aside, running successfully for a third and fourth term.
If Americans seemed eager for a dictator to lead them through economic turmoil and a war in Europe, their enthusiasm cooled in the peaceful years following World War II. In 1947, Republicans in Congress passed the 22nd Amendment, which prevents any person from being elected president more than twice; it was ratified to the Constitution four years later. Thomas Dewey, the Republican governor of New York who tried and failed to defeat Roosevelt in 1944, had warned during the campaign that FDR’s fourth bid for office was “the most dangerous threat to our freedom ever proposed.”
As maintained by tradition, then codified into law, presidential term limits have been a safeguard against tyranny and a bulwark to democracy. They have also served as a crass political weapon in the hands of dishonest partisans. During the presidency of Barack Obama, it’s worth recalling, crackpots on the right like Alex Jones and Rush Limbaugh routinely fanned the rumor that Obama would throw out term limits and install himself for a third term.
Such suggestions were so outlandish, Obama felt comfortable enough to joke occasionally that he was up to exactly that. But when he talked seriously about the issue, Obama affirmed presidential term limits as an essential function of healthy democracies. In a 2015 tour of several African countries, Obama chastised leaders there who held on to the presidency in order to flaunt their power and enrich themselves. Pointing to the American system as a model, Obama noted that “the law is the law, and no person is above the law, not even the president.”
Of course, President Trump cares little for law and tradition. Instead, he admires power, especially in some of its most brutal and authoritarian forms. Any other U.S. president would have recognized Xi’s move to make himself president for life as the totalitarian threat it is; Trump sees it as the deft gamesmanship of a shrewd leader. “He’s the most powerful president, you know, person, in 100 years in China,” Trump gushed to his audience at Mar-a-Lago.
Given Trump’s love of pomp and praise, it’s no wonder he’s drawn to such brash displays of power. If anything about Trump is still surprising at this point, it is how openly and brazenly he has flouted the basic conventions of American leadership ― and all while Republicans sit quietly by, pretending he’s not also upending longstanding conservative principles.
During the Obama administration, the right wing’s conspiratorial rumors about the president depended on imagining that his secret usurpation of power was exactly that ― a stealthy overthrow of the Constitution, carried out in the dark of night and facilitated by a corrupt “deep state.”
The horrifying brilliance of the Trump presidency, however, is that he is conducting his assault on American democracy in broad daylight. In plainly announcing each move, he is warming up Republicans, if not all Americans, to his radical remaking of the nation’s political system. That same bluster was on full display at a recent White House meeting where Trump blithely suggested delaying due process for some gun owners while Republicans looked blankly on.
All of this points back to the truest words Trump uttered during the 2016 campaign. “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose votes,” Trump boasted at an Iowa rally.
With those words, Trump acknowledged his perverse, cultlike hold over his supporters. But he also revealed his dangerous understanding of how much he could get away with as president. He’s putting that to work right now. He won’t be able to make himself president for life, of course. But the very fact that he is normalizing such scandalous talk is the terrifying proof that we’ll all have to live with the effects of Trumpism long after the man himself has left office.
Neil J. Young is a historian and author of We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics. He hosts the history podcast “Past Present.”