President Donald Trump, joined by (left to right) Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Vice President Mike Pence, senior adviser Steve Bannon, Communications Director Sean Spicer and National Security Advisor Michael Flynn.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Book of Judges emphasizes the dangers of a vacant throne, recounting the hardships and tragedies that befell the Israelites “when there was no king in Israel.” Instead, a series of “judges” filled the absent king’s shoes.
These judges were neither administrators nor statesmen, but rather charismatic rulers who led factions of Israelites as best they could in dire circumstances, often engaging in rebellion or even civil war. Meanwhile, chaos pervaded society, with one story recounting how a certain Israelite gave up his concubine to a gang of criminals to save himself from their wrath. The vacant throne of Israel led to a divided nation living in chaos.
Although America is far from this dreary reality, President Donald Trump has begun showing signs of withdrawal from the throne, with all that could entail. Addressing the press in the Oval Office, he and Vice President Mike Pence announced two executive orders concerning trade. But instead of signing these orders, which were awaiting signature on his desk, Trump left the Oval Office after making a short statement. A bewildered Pence approached the president, reminding him that he still had to sign the orders, prompting Trump to direct Pence to bring them outside.
Trump then left the room, followed by Pence with the unsigned orders in his hands (Trump later signed them elsewhere).
This simple occurrence shows us how embittered the president has become since taking office. To be sure, Trump came in with big plans and caused a stir with his controversial cabinet picks and legislative proposals. Still, very little of substance has been done.
For example, both of his immigration bans were suspended by federal courts while his healthcare plan did not even go to the Congress floor due to fierce bipartisan opposition. Each setback has further embittered the president to public life.
His response has been to withdraw from the public eye and rely more on his own executive powers to accomplish what he wants.
This has not only limited his capabilities – since taking substantial action requires interaction between the different branches – but also estranged him from his advisers. Pence’s confusion is only one example; White House chief strategist Steve Bannon also seemed at a loss when asked about the event and White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer has on more than one occasion had to explain Trump’s actions by asserting that the president was not being serious.
Thus, what we have is an executive paralyzed by confusion.
It seems that this paralysis is what we have to look forward to for now. For the sake of clarity, I would compare Trump’s behavior to that of a 16th century Chinese emperor named Zhu Yijun. Early on in his almost 50-year reign, Yijun removed himself entirely from court life following a series of disputes between him and the officials of the imperial bureaucracy arising from his insistence on naming as heir the son of his favorite concubine, Lady Zheng, rather than his eldest son (as ritual propriety demanded).
He flatly refused to receive any petitions and even literally left the throne empty every morning when his advisers would ritually bow before it to receive him. Even with his vast arbitrary powers, the emperor was severely limited in his actions due to the dissonance between his wishes and the actions of his officials.
The latter likewise found themselves in a tough spot since their own actions were limited lacking the emperor’s go-ahead.
The emperor preferred to engage in personal activities, giving more attention to his concubines and the vastly expensive construction of his tomb than to administrative matters. His family members gained from this, complementing his withdrawal from the public eye with their own initiatives. For example, Lady Zheng used her position in the imperial household to publish an influential book on historical women, a normally difficult feat for a concubine to accomplish. Chinese society reacted by factionalizing, with scholars taking on administrative functions and merchants consolidating power by more freely expanding their wealth thanks to the absence of government regulation. Chinese political life, however, remained relatively stagnant during Yijun’s reign.
Like Yijun, Trump is becoming increasingly disconnected from his advisers early on in his time in office and this trend seems to only grow. Just as Trump has defied ritual propriety by not signing the aforementioned executive orders in the Oval Office, he may well vacate the throne altogether, leaving his advisers to work out administrative matters as best they can without his guidance.
Trump’s elevation of his own children to positions of power is reminiscent of Yijun’s empowerment of the imperial household. Trump may not be lavishly spending government funds to construct his own tomb, but it does seem that he is using them excessively on personal vacations.
Political factionalization is prevalent here too, with various groups within Congress taking on the publicity that Trump is surrendering through his withdrawal from the public eye. Statements from congressional leaders (who are perhaps our modern judges) like John McCain, Paul Ryan, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer are today more visible than Trump’s own addresses. Absent an executive to guide the government’s agenda and lead legislative initiatives, America may well find itself in a state of political stagnation comparable to Yijun’s China.The author is a 20-year-old Jewish Israeli-American from New York City, currently studying for a BA in Israel at IDC Herzliya. He can be reached through email at firstname.lastname@example.org.