White House

Donald Trump, Impatient Hollywood President

On TV and in the movies, no bureaucracy or judicial branch can constrain the commander in chief.

On the big screen.

Photographer: John Moore/Getty Images

There’s a scene in the fourth episode of the ABC television show “Designated Survivor” in which President Tom Kirkman, played by Kiefer Sutherland, arranges the arrest of the governor of Michigan. Why? Well, the governor is a vicious bigot, who after a terrorist attack has the state police harassing and arresting Muslims. The president orders him to make the police stop. When the governor refuses, he is arrested.

For not carrying out a presidential order.

OK, the whole thing is ridiculous. The president can’t order a governor around. 1  (The writers are harking back, inaccurately, to the 1963 confrontation between President John Kennedy and Alabama Governor George Wallace.) Worse, the charge on which the governor is arrested is treason -- that is, for a governor to defy a presidential decree is the same as giving aid and comfort to the enemy.

Now, if you’re thinking that it’s about time I mentioned Donald Trump, you’re right. President Trump, according to critics, has a confused vision of the separation of powers, what with his attacks on the judiciary for daring to stand in his way. I think this is true. (Yes, both major parties have a long history of this particular offense, but we are talking here about Trump.)

But the president’s vision, oddly, is also Hollywood’s vision -- and Hollywood is not lately the haven of the alt-right. In the movies and on television, we not infrequently see presidents who skirt the law to achieve admirable ends, or who even take matters into their own hands, particularly where security is concerned. In the 2013 films “White House Down” and “Olympus Has Fallen,” terrorists took over the White House, and as part of effectuating his escape, the president had to grab an automatic weapon and fight his way out through a sea of baddies.

Perhaps the most iconic line ever uttered by a Hollywood commander in chief is President James Marshall’s “Get off my plane!” in “Air Force One.” The words are spoken during the final showdown between Marshall (Harrison Ford) and the chief terrorist (Gary Oldman). We respond with cheers for the president’s bravado, standing at risk of his own life for the sake of family and country.

What these and other fictional presidents have in common is a boldness against which no enemy can stand. They are not held back by processes and procedures. Neither bureaucracy nor separation of powers has any significance -- not when the security of the country is on the line. They see a threat and act against it. They do not wait for the views of the relevant agency heads, still less for the permission of the courts.

Once upon a time, Hollywood gave us chief executives who pondered, who were uncertain, who took stock. Think Jordan Lyman (Fredric March) in “Seven Days in May” or the unnamed president played by Henry Fonda in “Fail Safe.” Neither was bold at first, each had a clear preference for talk over action, yet each was meant to be heroic. What created the heroism was not merely the decision each reached, but the process through which he reached it. Their actions did not flow from instinct or impulse. They flowed from reflection.

Which brings us back to “Designated Survivor.” In the minds of the writers, we are supposed to admire President Kirkman for his daring in locking up a bigot. But the writers are confusing substance and process. The fact that the bigot is in the wrong does not mean that whatever the president decides to do about it is within the power of the executive. One may see a genuine problem and yet be constrained by rules to select the appropriate means in combating it.

This in essence is Trump’s difficulty as president. Put aside that the evidentiary support for his executive order on immigration is essential nil, a point emphasized by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in declining to overturn a lower court’s stay. Even if the president were right -- even if he were taking an action that would genuinely improve the nation’s security -- it would still be vital that he follow a proper process.

All of us, whatever our political persuasions, have moments when we become impatient with the requisites of procedure. Dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s slows us down. But that’s one of the reasons process is important. The rules that govern how government operates make it harder to achieve our goals swiftly. That’s a feature, not a bug.

We can all hope that President Trump learns this lesson soon. We should also hope, just as fervently, that when those who are now his critics are one day back in power, they too will remember that in this constitutional republic, how the government reaches a goal is every bit as important as the goal itself.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. Even among federal employees, refusing to carry out a presidential order may be a firing offense, but outside the military chain of command it is almost never a crime.

To contact the author of this story:
Stephen L. Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.