Susan Hennessey and Benjamin Wittes

Mar 16, 2020

Unmaking the Presidency

Donald Trump's War on the World's Most Powerful Office

Farrar, Straus, and Giroux 2020

purchase at bookshop.org Unmaking the Presidency: Donald Trump's War on the World's Most Powerful Office (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2020) guides the reader through both historical and contemporary considerations of how the American presidency was originally structured and how it has evolved over more than 200 years. This fascinating examination of the presidency starts with the oath of office, as outlined in the Constitution, and explains how Donald Trump, from the very moment he became the 45th president of the United States, was at odds with the constitutional system designed in 1787. Susan Hennessey and Benjamin Wittes, respectively executive editor and editor in chief of Lawfare and both senior fellows at The Brookings Institution, detail the historical basis for what they and many scholars refer to as the “traditional” presidency. This concept of the traditional presidency—which contains both the formal powers of the presidency as outlined in the Constitution as well as the norms and traditions that have taken root within the office over the course of American history—is being replaced, according to Hennessey and Wittes, by the “expressive” presidency. The expressive presidency presents a distinctly different vision of the office itself and essentially replaces the process through which presidential actions are taken and decisions are made with a much more personal approach to the office and the way that it functions. Hennessey and Wittes explain that this reinterpretation of the presidency conflates the person and the office, combining the two in ways that rely much more on the president’s personality and far less on the role of the office within the constitutional system. While the American presidency was unique in the way it combined the role of symbolic head of state and political leader, the transformation of the office by President Donald Trump has, essentially, unmade structural aspects of the office that held these two roles as separate and distinct. As most scholars and students of the presidency know, the office itself has changed in many ways over the course of 45 presidents and more than 200 years. The authors acknowledge this evolution of the office itself and the way that the president’s personality has become more integral to the office, but Unmaking the Presidency argues that the Trump presidency has potentially taken the office off of its constitutional underpinning, and through a variety of norm disruptions and structural changes, has essentially “unmade” the office. Whether it remains on this trajectory or returns to its previous position in some form is dependent on the outcome of the 2020 election.
Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI. She is co-editor of the award winning book, Women and the White House: Gender, Popular Culture, and Presidential Politics (University Press of Kentucky, 2012).

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Lilly Goren

Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI.

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