During last year’s presidential campaign, a story emerged in which sources close to Ohio’s Republican Governor John Kasich claimed that Donald Trump, Jr., called Gov. Kasich and offered to make him “the most powerful vice president in history.”
Kasich would be in charge of both foreign and domestic policy. What would President Trump would be in charge of, Kasich wanted to know? “Making America great again” came the reply.
This proposed arrangement, if true, was mocked by many. But there’s actually something to recommend it: It’s the way the United Kingdom has done business for centuries. And it’s clearer than ever that President Donald Trump doesn’t really want to be a nuts-and-bolts governor, but rather a ceremonial head of state. So how should this arrangement work?
Head of state versus head of government
In today’s Great Britain, the Queen is the head of state. She wields no executive power over the affairs of government. Instead, she serves as a symbol of the country and takes part in ceremonial events. Her only job, essentially, is to make the United Kingdom great again — or at least to keep the U.K. great, assuming no significant lull in Pax Britannica.
The British prime minister serves as the head of government. Her role is more similar to the one Trump Jr. reportedly floated to Kasich. The U.K. also has the benefit of a designated leader of the opposition, who stands as the head of the minority party in parliament and confronts the prime minister in parliament directly during the prime minister’s question time.
In America, however, these roles are not so clearly defined. While it’s pretty clear that Donald Trump embraces his role of head of state, it’s also obvious that he doesn’t relish being head of government. In fact, he seems eager to delegate those responsibilities to someone or others willing to do all the heavy lifting for him. In America, who is the real head of government? And who is the leader of the opposition?
A warm body, and active brain, at the metaphorical 10 Downing Street
If one presumes that Trump offered the Kasich deal to all his prospective vice presidential nominees, one would assume that Mike Pence would the functional equivalent of the prime minister. But Trump’s number two has been awfully quiet of late. All of the noise and fury emanating from the Trump White House doesn’t appear to have Pence at its epicenter. If he’s this administration’s puppet mater, he’s done a very good job of hiding the strings.
Initially, everyone assumed that chief strategist Steve Bannon was the power behind the Trump throne, including Bannon himself. This didn’t sit well with King Trump, who wants someone to do all his work but gets furious when they try to take any credit for it. Bannon hasn’t been fired, but reports suggest that, if anything he’s functioning as a prime-minister-in-exile. And while Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner may instead be the one who has moved into the the American metaphorical equivalent of 10 Downing Street, Kushner is under fire for his Russian contacts, and appears to be hamstrung by the indecision and ignorance of the man at the top.
So who’s really in charge? Nobody knows. Including, it seems, Donald Trump himself.
There’s a power vacuum where there should be a leader of the opposition
So why hasn’t this profound power vacuum imploded the Trump presidency? Perhaps it’s because there isn’t really a leader of the opposition, either.
Certainly several people have applied themselves to the job description, including Hillary Clinton. But she seems to be having as much success in getting this job as the last one. She may be tanned, rested, and ready –but also bitter, unpleasant, and clueless.
Clinton still offers no compelling alternative message to Trumpism, and refuses to acknowledge the role her own incompetence and arrogance played in her stunning defeat. The real opposition recognizes that her turn is over – even if it ever was her turn to begin with. It would be much wiser to let some of the younger kids play in the sandbox.
Except in this case, the younger kid is Bernie Sanders, who is a much, much older kid. The fact that anti-Trump millennials identify with a man five years away from being an octogenarian says a great deal about the opposition’s limited bench. Septuagenarian Joe Biden is on that bench too, making rumblings about a 2020 presidential run. This is an opposition without a spring chicken in sight.
The amount of murkiness in the Trumpian morass makes the Kasich deal look better all the time. It would be very different from the way America is used to governing, but at least everyone would know what their job was.
As it stands, all we know is that Trump loves to hear “Hail to the Chief” played when he walks in a room. He just doesn’t like to do what chiefs are supposed to do. And the opposition can’t get its act together, either.