For decades now it has been clear that the flipside of Americans’ veneration of the office of the presidency, which combines the functions of head of government and head of state into one extraordinarily powerful title, is our insistence that presidents whom we do not ourselves support cannot be just that: politicians we did not vote for and would just as soon not see re-elected. Instead, the opponents of virtually every president in my lifetime, from Bill Clinton to Trump, have insisted that he was at the very least illegitimate, if not a tyrant.
These vague inclinations have a way of justifying themselves. After years of omnidirectional scandalmongering by the House GOP, Clinton was impeached in 1998. George W. Bush, who owed his election to a Supreme Court decision that outraged half the country, spent most of his eight years in office being compared to characters from dystopian novels and to various historical dictators; everything was the subject of intense, indeed at times ludicrous scrutiny, from his invasion of Iraq to his re-election in 2004, which was the basis of another of conspiracy theories involving (what else?) the manipulation of electronic voting machines. Barack Obama’s legitimacy was cast into doubt by his enemies long before his inauguration thanks to the so-called birther controversy, which actually began during Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential run. Meanwhile Trump was accused by liberals of being some kind of Russian plant from the minute he took office, a ludicrous fiction of which his previous opponent appeared to be convinced four years later.