The American presidency as currently conceived is nothing if not a study in excess. So when Donald Trump stepped into the Oval Office, he took on a position of remarkable and, in the modern world, unparalleled power.
That is not something to celebrate.
President Trump can subpoena journalists' phone records and call it "national security." He can prosecute whistleblowers to discourage dissent. He can access mass amounts of warrantless surveillance on ordinary Americans, including triple the telephonic metadata the NSA was able to search before the so-called reforms passed as a result of Edward Snowden's revelations. He can govern by executive fiat. He can unilaterally expand military intervention without congressional interference or any geographic boundaries. He can indefinitely detain people in Guantanamo Bay and other secret prisons. He can have a "kill list" of drone strike targets, that can include American citizens secretly assassinated without charge or trial. Some of them can even be teenagers neither suspected nor accused of any crime.
Trump can do all this and more — so, so much more — because the presidency he inherited from Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and their predecessors is, in the apt phrase of The Week's Ryan Cooper, a turnkey tyranny. It is what led a British lawmaker to complain that comparisons of our presidency to a monarchy are increasingly unfair: "Real monarchs," he said, tend to be "humbler, cheaper, and far more respectful of the way things are supposed to work." And it is what caused Hillary Clinton, in an ironic tweet given her then-status as a presidential candidate, to worry about the damage Trump could do if he "had not just Twitter to go after critics and opponents, but also the IRS — or our military."
I'll readily agree that having President Trump at those controls is uniquely unsettling. But the issue is ultimately more structural than personal. Whatever one thinks of Trump himself, the imperial presidency boasts more power than anyone should have. The role has grown far beyond the comparatively humble administrative position initially envisioned. Not incidentally, our presidential elections have higher stakes every cycle precisely because of this executive usurpation of legislative authority: Having abandoned our "government of laws and not of men," we now feel compelled to spend miserable months and billions of dollars fighting to ensure our guy is king of an ever-higher hill.
The American presidency is not something to be exalted. It is something that needs to be neutered.
Presidents Day is part and parcel of this mess. As such, it really ought to go. This seemingly innocuous holiday — and, honestly, who doesn't want a long weekend in late February? — is a subtle annual reinforcement of the excessive power and celebrity the presidency has acquired.
Presidents Day is the holiday form of those inane calls to "respect the office even if you don't like the person" which we always hear from the winning side after each Election Day. Less respect — less aggrandizement and less sentimentality and less unfettered authority exercised without regard for rule of law and common decency — is what the Oval Office really needs, even if you do like the person.
If we must have a Presidents Day, its purpose ought to be a review of the office's legal limitations and historical failures, an opportunity for reflection and critique which in inaugural years will be a much-needed antidote to the unrepublican (small r!) spectacle that is the inauguration festivities and the grotesque governmental muscle-flexing that is the "first 100 days." Presidents Day should be an opportunity to think not about what we like or dislike in the sitting president but about the scope of the presidential institution itself.
As for George Washington, the president whom Presidents Day specifically commemorates, I think he'd be fine with the downgrade. Though far from consistent on this point, Washington at least in theory understood the risk of an over-powerful executive. He was famously reluctant to be president himself or to imbue the office with "even the appearance of pomp or vain parade," asking that when he arrived in the temporary capital city of New York he be accorded "a quiet entry devoid of ceremony." In his second inaugural address, which lasted all of two paragraphs, Washington defined the office as merely that of "chief magistrate." It is a laughable description today.
The modern presidency is drenched in pomp and vain parade — and, more important — usurped authority whose exercise too often goes unchecked. Nixing or at least substantially changing Presidents' Day won't change that. But it would be a small, if mostly symbolic, step in the right direction. We need not figure out exactly how to reform this office to end the petty holiday which reiterates its excess.