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President for Life? Trump Likes It. So Did Alexander Hamilton

By Joe Rothstein — March 5, 2018

A President for life? Something Americans would ever accept? Don’t be too quick to dismiss the possibility just because Donald Trump is musing about it.

Start with those who don’t care enough to vote. They average 45% of all eligible voters over the last four presidential elections. Of those who did vote in 2016, recent polls show that 80% of Trump voters would stick with him again in 2020. That’s 52 million Americans.

Would they support Trump for longer if they could? What more could he possibly do that would shake their faith? Moral decadence, misogyny, financial self-dealing, nepotism, possible collusion with Russia and animosity to our allies, lying, racism, almost as much time spent playing golf than on the job, decision-making by TV commentary, failure to disclose taxes and finances, association with mobsters and mafiosos. Name a minimal standard we’ve required our presidents to meet. Trump’s violated all of them.

And that’s just his personal behavior. Through his appointments and executive action he’s reversing protections put in place over the past hundred or more years for workers, consumers, students, the environment, minorities, the poor, the elderly, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and retirement pensions.

And 52 million Americans say they would sign up for four more years of it.

Add those 52 million to 115 million or so who don’t vote at all and you have about 65% of the American public who could be open to, or indifferent to, removing the twenty-second amendment of the Constitution that limits a president to two terms. That would require action by Congress and approval by 38 state legislatures. As of this writing, Republicans control both houses of the legislature in 32 states. On another track, 34 states could trigger a call for a constitutional convention. Twenty-eight states already have. Maine currently is debating whether to be the 29th.

All those newly enamored with the celebrity of Alexander Hamilton may be surprised to learn that both he and James Madison favored making the presidency a lifetime appointment. Yes, appointment, not election. By electoral college, not a vote of the people.

George Washington voluntarily stepped down after eight years as president, starting a tradition that lasted until Franklin Roosevelt’s four terms. Roosevelt literally WAS president for life, dying while in office. His last two terms reflected the public’s decision to keep Roosevelt in the White House to guide us through the national emergency of World War II.

Are we there again? In an emergency situation? This time in a place where the checks and balances of a 1787 Constitution seem to have paralyzed governance required to cope with 21st century threats?

The president’s approval rating is only at 40% or less. But that’s double the approval rating of Congress, a result of critical problems stacking up unresolved in the nation’s inbox. The growing wealth gap, the continuing crisis in our health system, perilous weakening of retirement security, increasing devastation from a warming planet, a renewed nuclear weapons threat, crumbling infrastructure, ever-higher personal and national debt. Our political system can’t even keep military assault weapons out of the hands of children and known mentally ill.

That’s why a strong leader is so attractive to so many. That’s why 64 million Americans elected as president a flawed man who promised “I alone can fix it.” Such a claim is a direct challenge to the triad of institutions that for 230 years has been the foundation of U.S. government-—a system of justice, a popularly elected Congress, and an executive branch. The fact that Trump was elected despite that challenge cannot be easily dismissed as a one-time aberration.

Certainly not, when you place it in context with elections elsewhere. Italian voters just overwhelmingly rejected their long-serving dominant political parties. That mimicked France, where newly-elected President Emmanuel Macron formed his political party only months before last year’s French elections. In Great Britain, rejecting both the political and business establishment, a majority voted to leave the European Union. Andrea Merkel has struggled for months to remain in power.

Western democracy is in turmoil, not because opposition is offering creative solutions, but because voters are losing faith with those in power and the longstanding institutions they represent.

How does all of this equate to “a president for life?” If a nation’s leader doesn’t have to worry about the next election, he or she has a wider range of options. If members of a Congress or a Parliament or a Russian duma or Communist Chinese Politburo know their leader will be in power indefinitely, all relationships change. Power flows to the top. Decisions made there more likely will be decreed and are less likely to be questioned.

We hear much these days about U.S. democracy being put to the test with Trump as president. Well, if it’s a test, Congress so far is failing and the legal system’s determination to protect the system remains in doubt.

A recent Gallup poll found that despite an approval rate of only 40%, more than half of all voters see Trump as a strong leader who keeps his promises and can be an agent of needed change. For many, Trump is the type of leader we need at a time when other institutions of government seem to be failing.

How voters would react to considering Alexander Hamilton and James Madison’s proposal to name a president for life likely depends on how long Americans are willing to tolerate government drift, inaction and failure to do the job the founders intended.

For tens of millions of Americans disenchanted with gridlock, president for life could sound like a reasonable, oh-what-the-hell-why-not-try-it, alternative. And as we have learned since Trump emerged as a political force, if he says it, tens of millions of Americans think it’s a good idea.

(Joe Rothstein is a regular columnist for and author of the acclaimed thriller “The Latina President and the Conspiracy to Destroy Her.” Mr. Rothstein can be contacted at

Joe Rothstein is editor of U.S. Politics Today. His career in politics spans 35 years, as a strategist and media producer in more than 200 campaigns for political office and for many political causes. He was a pioneer in professional political consulting and one of the founding members of the American Association of Political Consultants. During his career Mr. Rothstein has served as editor of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Anchorage Daily News and adjunct professor at George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management. He has a master's degree in journalism from UCLA.