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Trump and the “Green Lantern” Presidency


Corey Robin says that we’re all Green Lanternists, while arguing that the argument was always being made in bad faith:

Since Trump’s election, we’ve not heard much about the weakness of the presidency. All the things presidents were supposed to be unable to do — reshape the public, their parties, and the polity — journalists and punditsnow believe a president can do. Through words alone. Everyone’s a Green Lanternist now. The institution of the presidency hasn’t changed. But its occupant has, and with that, the needs of the commentariat. Instead of defending a beleaguered and beloved president against his critics on the left, the task at hand is to oppose a president who’s almost universally reviled, at least by the media.

But now, with the Democrats in control of the House, and maybe readying to win the White House in 2020, there’s less talk of tyranny, even in the face of Trump’s declaration of an emergency. Maybe, it’s even been suggested, a Democratic president might make positive use of such a declaration in the future, on climate change or gun violence. New tasks call for new theories: Instead of Green Lanternism, which was helpful in absolving Obama from accusations on the left, or authoritarianism, which was temporarily useful in opposing Trump and defending norms, perhaps we’ll revert to more heroic conceptions of the liberal presidency, drawn from the heady days of FDR.

A few issues here:

  • None of the links in the first quoted paragraph purporting to show that people have abandoned the Green Lantern argument…are to people prominently associated with the argument. I don’t see how something written by Jeet Heer can demonstrate that Ezra Klein has opportunistically changed his mind about presidential powers.
  • The actual anti-Green Lantern thesis is that presidents 1)can’t make their agenda more popular by giving speeches, and 2)have limited leverage to get Congressional majorities to do things they don’t want to do ex ante. How the the Trump administration contradicts this thesis is not obvious to me, and hence like AFICT everyone who made these arguments in 2010 I haven’t changed my mind.
  • The fact that Trump has consolidated the support of his party by, er, governing like an orthodox Republican does not contradict the Green Lantern thesis at all.
  • The second paragraph is the key to the argument. Allegedly, the whole “Green Lantern” theory was just gerry-rigged to protect Obama from attacks to the left — prescient of George Edwards to have published his book in 2003! — nobody really believed it, Obama could have been a “heroic” president, and perhaps the next Democratic president will be (i.e. if it’s Bernie.)  My view, for the record, is that if you expect any Democratic president elected in 2020 is to get an ambitious legislative agenda through a Senate who even in an optimistic scenario will have a median vote that will have to turn to his or her left to see Tim Kaine, or think that declarations of emergency power could allow the president to unilaterally and effectively address climate change or gun violence, you’re going to be gravely disappointed.
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