An Inaugural Celebration That Rings Hollow

Commentators love to praise the peaceful handover of power—but this year, it stands as a reminder of the system’s fragility and shortcomings.

Lucas Jackson / Reuters

Every presidency is different, but inaugural coverage is always the same. Commentators congratulate Americans on the peaceful transition of power and intone solemn sentences about democratic renewal.

There is something unnerving about these reassurances, something overstated, even hysterical. When a British prime minister loses the confidence of the House of Commons and must suddenly trundle out of 10 Downing Street (as some six dozen of them have done since the job was invented in the 1740s; a few more than once), nobody marvels on television how wonderful it is that he or she doesn’t try to retain power by force of arms. Nobody in Denmark thinks it extraordinary when one party relinquishes power to another. Ditto New Zealand or Switzerland—all of them treat peaceful transfers of power as the developed world norm, like reliable electricity or potable water.

Americans so insistently celebrate the peaceful transfer of power precisely because they nervously recognize the susceptibility of their polity to violence. The presidential election of 1860 triggered one of the bloodiest civil wars in human history. The presidential election of 1876 very nearly reignited that war. Since 1900, two presidents have been murdered; six more—Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan—were either wounded by a would-be assassin or else escaped by inches.

The wonder, of course, is that the presidential selection mechanism does not work even worse than it does. An 18th-century contrivance for a confederation of sovereign states, it fits ill with a modern mass-media democracy. In almost any voting system, it is theoretically possible for the chief executive to win fewer votes than his or her principal opponent. It can happen in a Westminster system, as it did in the British election of 1974 when the winning party, Labour, received a total of 230,000 fewer votes than the defeated Conservatives. It can easily happen in a multiparty system like Germany’s, where the government is assembled by post-election dealmaking among party leaders.

But given the heavy emphasis of the American system on plebiscitary legitimation of the president (“the people have spoken, let us all unite behind their choice”), it’s especially stressful if the winner of the Electoral College fails to win a popular-vote majority, as now has occurred twice within a political generation. France is the only other advanced democracy that has a non-parliamentary executive, and France uses a run-off system to ensure the ultimate winner gains an absolute majority of the vote.

That stress of the anti-majoritarian potential of the presidency is intensified if the popular-vote defeat is not narrow, as in 2000, but dramatic, as in 2016. (If Hillary Clinton had caught the lucky bounce, her popular-vote margin would have been greater than those of John F. Kennedy in 1960, Jimmy Carter in 1976, or George W. Bush in 2004.)

Adding further to the stress is that the incoming president represents exactly the kind of figure that the 1787 contrivance was designed to bar from office.

From Federalist 68:

Cabal, intrigue, and corruption: These most deadly adversaries of republican government might naturally have been expected to make their approaches from more than one quarter, but chiefly from the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils. How could they better gratify this, than by raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union?

That warning was promptly followed by the 18th-century version of our contemporary cable chatter:

But the convention have guarded against all danger of this sort, with the most provident and judicious attention.

Yet nothing’s perfect.

From Friday’s New York Times:

American law enforcement and intelligence agencies are examining intercepted communications and financial transactions as part of a broad investigation into possible links between Russian officials and associates of President-elect Donald J. Trump, including his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, current and former senior American officials said.

The message will be stated and restated this day: For the 58th time, the system has worked, and power has smoothly transferred from one heir of George Washington to another. The truth is not so happy. With full advance notice, and despite the failure to gain a plurality of the nation’s vote, the United States will soon inaugurate someone who owes his office in some large part to a hostile foreign intelligence operation. Who is, above and beyond that, a person whose character that leaves him unqualified to hold the presidency, and threatens the country with an impending sequence of financial and espionage scandals—a constitutional crisis on two legs.

The real message of today is that the system has failed. The challenge of the morrow is to know what to do to save the remainder.