President Donald Trump sure does have a strange sense of humor.
Take his regular “jokes” about the possibility of extending his time in office beyond the Constitutionally-mandated two four-year terms. Here’s the latest example, from Trump’s Twitter feed over the weekend:
“A poll should be done on which is the more dishonest and deceitful newspaper, the Failing New York Times or the Amazon (lobbyist) Washington Post! They are both a disgrace to our Country, the Enemy of the People, but I just can’t seem to figure out which is worse? The good news is that at the end of 6 years, after America has been made GREAT again and I leave the beautiful White House (do you think the people would demand that I stay longer? KEEP AMERICA GREAT), both of these horrible papers will quickly go out of business & be forever gone!”
Ha ha ha, wait a minute.
In a vacuum, you might be able to dismiss Trump’s parenthetical aside aimed at raising the possibility of people demanding he stays beyond eight years as a not-super-funny joke by the President. Context reveals, however, that this is a “joke” Trump tells all the time – and he doesn’t do it to be funny.
Back in March 2018, Trump gave a closed-door speech at Mar-a-Lago to Republican donors in which he said this of Chinese President Xi Jinping: “He’s now president for life. President for life. No, he’s great. And look, he was able to do that. I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot someday.”
The following month, in a rally with Republican members of Congress, Trump said this: “We’re cutting record numbers of regulations – we’ve cut more regulations in a year and a quarter than any administration whether it’s four years, eight years, or in one case 16 years,” Trump said. “Should we go back to 16 years? Should we do that? Congressman, can we do that?”
In response to the hubbub created by that “joke,” Trump pushed back – and, in the process, affirmed that he wasn’t really joking at all (bolding is mine). “You know the last time I jokingly said that the papers start saying, ‘He’s got despotic tendencies,’” said Trump. “No, I’m not looking to do it. Unless you want to do it, that’s OK.”
Earlier this spring during an event at the White House for Wounded Warriors, Trump was given a trophy from the group. “Well, this is really beautiful,” he said. “This will find a permanent place, at least for six years, in the Oval Office. Is that okay? … I was going to joke, ‘General, and say at least for 10 or 14 years, but we would cause bedlam if I said that, so we’ll say six.’”
So, yeah. You get the idea. There’s now more than enough evidence out there to make clear Trump isn’t really joking when he talks about serving more than two terms (assuming, of course, he wins in 2020.)
To be clear: I don’t think Trump has any grand plan to change the Constitution in order to allow him to stay in office for longer than eight years. His first three years in office have proven that he doesn’t have any grand plans about much of anything – he just acts and sees how people react, and then reacts to the reaction. There’s no document locked up in a vault somewhere in the White House that has a 10-step plan to make Trump president for life.
(Sidebar: Yes, I know there are those out there who believe Trump says things like this simply to watch the media explode about What It All Means. But even under that scenario, we have a a President willing to troll America using “jokes” about serving for a third term. So, yeah.)
Rather, what his regular referrals to the idea of staying in office beyond two terms makes clear is that Trump has little understanding of or care for what would loosely be described as accepted norms of a democratic society. He was elected president without ever having served in or run for any previous office, and his actions since taking over the presidency have often nodded toward authoritarianism. He’s praised dictators from North Korea’s Kim Jong Un to Russia’s Vladimir Putin to the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte. He’s sought to discredit the media seeking to cover him and his administration, openly telling supporters not to believe what they read or see. He’s urged his own Justice Department to look into alleged crimes committed by Hillary Clinton, his 2016 opponent.
And on and on it goes – a stack of evidence that Trump either doesn’t understand or doesn’t care about the idea of the presidency as a stewardship, a public trust – dating back to George Washington – that is meant to be handed off after a bounded time period. Which is a big deal, and yet more evidence of how deeply unorthodox Donald Trump’s presidency truly is.