When European countries were ruled by kings, the monarchs often called one another by the name of their country. For example, “Russia” might meet with “England,” in a session involving only the two rulers.
Kings were the same as their countries because they alone were sovereigns. The people were their “subjects,” not “citizens.”
That practice disappeared as sovereignty came to be held by citizens, and the surviving kings or queens reigned but no longer ruled. The United States rebelled against the British King and replaced George III with “We, the People.”
Just as kings represented their countries, so would the “President of the United States,” though presidents would not be sovereigns or rulers.
But here is a problem with President Trump. He sometimes seems to believe that his unusual and unexpected election means that he should be respected as if he enjoyed what used to be called “the divine right of kings.”
He may see himself as embodying his country. At his post G-7 press conference in Canada, he was asked why he “attacked the U.S. press,” especially when he was on “foreign soil.”
He replied that much of the American media is “very dishonest.” Some reporters are “with the U.S.,” leaving some who are not. They are responsible for “fake news,” which is how he labels news reports unfavorable to him. Not being “with the U.S.” seems to mean not being “with Trump.”
In short, the president creates his version of the facts, and, if the media deviates from those facts, it is “dishonest” and, worse, disloyal to the country.
People around the president suggested last week that the White House should remove the credentials of journalists whose reports are not in line with the Trump administration. Such an action would override the role of a free press that shines an independent light on government.
No president likes that spotlight. In what has been called perhaps the worst U.S. law ever passed, President John Adams used the Sedition Act in an attempt to crush media opposition. He signed it in 1798 and lost re-election in 1800. It expired in 1801, just before he left office.
Trump’s conduct in office, often more like a monarch than the leader of a democratic republic, reflects his sense of the powers he gained with election. It goes far beyond his relationship with a free press.
At first, he seemed to expect that Congress should almost automatically approve his policies, mostly likely because he and the congressional majority were Republican. Apparently, he did not see Congress as a co-equal branch of government.
Even more important, he stretched the discretion the law gives the president, taking actions obviously contrary to congressional intent. His decision to split the families of illegal immigrants, not done previously and not required by law, is a solid example of this approach.
He has felt himself liberated from adhering to the commitments and traditions that have developed throughout American political history. From the pardoning power to his almost weekly travel to his Florida home at public expense to his personal attacks on opponents, he has ignored custom.
Trump did not serve in the military, but, as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, he has become accustomed to returning salutes from soldiers. As a result, he inadvertently saluted a uniformed North Korean general. President Harry Truman, who had served in combat, did not salute.
Early in his term, Trump was reluctant to reaffirm the American obligation to join in mutual defense under NATO. Allies who had lined up with the U.S. from the Korean conflict to Afghanistan suddenly began to worry if they would benefit from standing U.S. commitments.
This week he blasted German immigration policy, relying on false statistics about crime there. Trump had no problem alienating a friendly nation and one of the world’s economic powers.
In foreign affairs, Trump openly attacks friendly democratic nations, while lavishing praise on repressive dictators.
North Korea’s Kim Jung Un kills dissidents without a trial by firing squads armed with artillery howitzers. He is “tough,” according to an admiring Trump. Canada’s Justin Trudeau, who regretfully defends his country against U.S. tariff increases, is ‘weak.”
Given his view of the presidency, he appears to believe that, in face-to-face negotiations, he and leaders like Kim and Russia’s Putin can simply make a deal.
It is not difficult to understand that Trump’s governing style makes him more comfortable with Kim, Putin or China’s Xi than with Germany’s Merkel or Trudeau. Authoritarian leaders – the current equivalent of kings – exercise power as if they were sovereigns.