Americans expect much from their president — some would say too much. He is not only regarded as head of state, but as an all-powerful economic wizard and social engineer, in addition to being a media celebrity. Candidates offer up a platter of promises only to face disappointment when they fail to deliver: it happened to Barack Obama and Donald Trump, and it is happening again to the incumbent.

Congress, as the body tasked with making laws and passing budgets, tends to encounter much less scrutiny and judgement. Nearly all citizens can name the president, but many can’t identify their local congressman: and it’s harder to direct blame at someone you don’t know. As a result, the institution has become a carnival-esque arena for all manner of political grandstanders and bomb-throwers. Surely there has to be a better way?

When faced with its own imbalance between executive and legislative prerogative, the English ruling class in 1688 enacted an institutional coup — the Glorious Revolution — and forged a settlement between king and parliament, concentrating the practical powers of government in the latter while confining the former to a lofty but ceremonial role. This entrenched what Walter Bagehot theorised as the distinction between the “efficient” and the “dignified” parts of the constitution. And it has stood the test of time, not just in the sceptred isle but in many of its ex-colonies, where British institutions, not least among them a Westminster-style parliament, have been shown to be conducive to political stability.

This was the model against which the revolutionaries of 1776 had fashioned their constitutional thinking. However, given the dysfunctional lot of their heirs, should Americans consider, if not an outright importation, then at least a creative adaptation of the British model? One year on from King Charles’s coronation, one can easily imagine an America in which the president serves as a symbolic head of state while Congress is granted the responsibilities of a Westminster parliament.

The idea is by no means new. Indeed, no less than the first president George Washington, widely seen as above partisanship, was feted as a semi-monarchical deity, with Alexander Hamilton viewing “Washington as George II and himself as Robert Walpole”. A generation later, in its battle with “King Andrew” Jackson, the opposition Whig Party also sought to emulate the English example by claiming (fruitlessly) that Congress, and not the presidency, should be the primary organ of national policy, as it was with the House of Commons. In the lead-up to the progressive era, a young Woodrow Wilson called outright for an end to the separation of powers in his 1885 treatise Congressional Government, arguing that the changing needs of the nation demanded a streamlined form of government. Later as president, Wilson, along with his rival and predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt, set the stage for the powerful and expansive presidency that came to the fore in the 20th century.

But confronted today with the above problems, how far could the American presidency be reconfigured in the direction of a constitutional monarchy? Rather than try to answer the question in the abstract, we may focus on the last two presidents, Obama and Trump, as hypothetical model office-holders around whose traits the position may be tailored. After all, these two figures, in their own very different ways, have embodied the mystical and, therefore, monarchical aspects of the presidency more than most of its recent occupants.

In Obama’s case, it was during the fleeting (and ultimately illusory) “post-racial” moment heralded by his election as the first African American president in 2008, when the nation’s historic divisions appeared to subside: he seemed to be possessed of a halo not unlike Washington’s. In Trump’s case, his monarchical bona fides stems more from the unshakeable bond of loyalty he inspires in his base, which may fairly be described as sultanic in its intensity; though it is also not unlike that which existed between Jackson (scorned as well as a royal autocrat) and his raucous populist coalition. Evidently, the attribute of total impartiality demanded of a purely apolitical head of state, representing the people as a whole, may be too much to ask for in the present American context.

Perhaps, then, the British monarch is less a viable model for this experiment than, say, the ceremonial heads of state in parliamentary republics like Germany, Ireland and India, where presidents are largely non-political but usually arise from the political class and are nominated by parties. If we cannot imagine Obama or Trump as entirely shorn of partisan affiliation, they might, at least, abstract themselves from it once in office, as the German Bundespräsident or Irish Uachtarán are expected to do. But what exactly would US presidents do if they no longer have to govern? Would any chief executive content himself with cutting ribbons and attending funerals: in other words, with becoming like the vice president?

The answer may lie with our hypothetical office-holders, and their respective mystiques. For what truly unites Obama and Trump, despite all their contrasts, is the fact that they have always been far more effective and compelling as celebrities — that is, as generalised cultural fixtures (not unlike the late Queen Elizabeth) — than they ever were as administrators or party leaders.

Trump captured it best in his pre-presidential career: before he staked his brand with one side of the partisan divide and became a politician, he was simply the tough-talking businessman who appeared in tabloids, talk shows, films and reality TV, as he bought up hotels, casinos, an airline, and a football league. Never mind how successful or not these ventures ended up being: for many, he personified the very spirit of American capitalism, in both its vulgar crassness and gilded splendour. The New York billionaire served as exemplar and guru to other glory-seeking entrepreneurs, who saw their own ambitions realised in him.

“The New York billionaire served as exemplar and guru to other glory-seeking entrepreneurs.”

By the same token, Obama incarnated the promise of American meritocracy, rising from obscurity to the country’s most prestigious institutions, from the Ivy League to the White House: all the while, he wrote eloquent memoirs that read like the highest expressions of that distinct literary subgenre beloved of the American upper middle class, the college admissions essay, and modelled the prospect of social mobility for young Americans of colour. Nowadays, with lucrative Netflix deals, high-profile interview appearances, and gala charity events, this former president has returned to form as a celebrity, in his post-presidential career.

Their profiles, needless to say, appeal to differing sections of the country: Trump is as natural a spokesman for one as Obama is for another. And herein lies the model an American constitutional-republican monarchy could take: ceremonial presidents who can symbolise the hopes and high aspirations of the citizenry — with the caveat that, in these divided times, there are two separate and opposing value sets to be represented.

The imperative of unity may be advanced under this scheme by having the two figures serve together as joint co-monarchs or consuls, as in Ancient Rome or Sparta, with one each for red and blue America. Their roles would be to set the general direction of the national conversation; to guide the governmental process from a removed distance; and to give voice to the concerns of their respective halves of the country, in ways that may still be broadly political but non-partisan.

Though they would be stripped of their direct powers, they could use their moral authority to nudge the parties in certain directions: after all, both Trump and Obama are most useful when they are able to buck their party’s orthodoxies and to better intuit public sentiment as a result, such as when Trump president warned Republicans against cutting entitlements or when Obama advised Democrats to reject the excesses of identity politics. Best of all is when the two are actually able to agree on something, such as the need for public healthcare in America.

Meanwhile, Congress, in this scenario, would be newly empowered with executive as well as legislative duties, meaning its members would have to form ministries, composed of a prime minister and cabinet, and dependent for its existence on the confidence of the lower house. While the Senate would keep the six-year durations of its terms, the House of Representatives would be relieved of its fixed biennial terms: as it is, there are no stakes for individual members, who are free to threaten government shutdowns without fear of losing their seats (or their salaries), but the possibility of parliamentary dissolution for Congresses that fail to pass budgets should make for a more disciplined body that is better able to carry out its constitutional mandate.

For the same reasons, once members of Congress are entrusted with the responsibility of managing an executive ministerial portfolio — and once the heads of cabinet departments are made directly answerable to the legislature — Americans will have reason to expect far more from their representatives, in terms of both performance and presentation. This alternative Congress would give far less oxygen to the likes of Jim Jordan, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Ilhan Omar. The overall effect should be a more responsive and legible form of government.

In this America, there would be two kinds of elections: a regular partisan one for Congress and another special one for the co-presidency. For the latter, however, our red and blue consuls won’t have to run against each other, since they will be serving side by side. Rather, we may see the two candidates going on the road together à la Lincoln-Douglas, showing up at diners and country fairs, judging pie contests, throwing first pitches, and talking with ordinary people.

If the one formal meeting between Trump and Obama was any indication, this would no doubt make for a most awkward form of political theatre. Yet it would serve as a much-needed civic lesson for Americans, namely that it is worth putting on a good face for one’s fellow citizens, especially those from the other side of the political divide, no matter how maddeningly difficult it may be. After all, in the absence of kings and courtly rituals, it is this decorum — this patriotic artifice — that will, in Bagehot’s words, “preserve and sustain the reverence of the population” for their form of government.

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