The White House is about to be occupied by a divisive personality, and that, in large part, is precisely why Donald Trump was elected US president in the first place. Many Americans felt their existing institutions were outdated and out of step with their needs, and that only a major personality like Trump could shake them up.
But institutions tend to be recognized as such because of their durability; they aren’t known for bending much to the whim of individuals. Right away we can envision a conflict between Trump’s own desires and the rigidity of the institutions he serves, and this conflict, for better or worse, will define his presidency and legacy.
Every major character in Netflix’s The Crown grapples with a similar conflict. Prince Philip, the husband of queen Elizabeth II, struggles to fit his masculine identity within an institution where he is royal consort. Winston Churchill’s aging mind and body struggle to serve the institutions he is responsible for as prime minister. The Duke of Windsor, who abdicated a generation earlier, chose his needs over that of the throne and lost his sense of place in the process.
But the struggle weighs most on the young queen, who leads an ancient institution that frequently puts her at odds with the needs of her family, the public, and the modern world. Over and over again, she ultimately chooses to put the institution first. But knowing what we do about today’s royal family, we can safely say the institution has been transformed under her rule.
As we enter a new—and to some, unsettling—era of leadership around the world, The Crown offers many insights on whether it is possible to uphold the institutions that keep us safe, even while destroying the ones that hold us back.
Institutions do get out of date and sometimes you need a big, unconventional personality to change them
Institutions include laws, government structure, or sometimes just social norms and conventions. They are valuable because they provide certainty. But they can also pose a cost when they become obsolete or were inhumane to begin with (slavery, for example).
One central story line in The Crown depicts the young queen’s deliberations over whether to grant permission to her sister, princess Margaret, to marry a divorced man, Peter Townsend. By the 1950s, divorce was no longer as big a deal as it once was. The British public supported the union. Even seniors member of the Cabinet, who opposed to the marriage, included four divorced men.
The rule that royalty couldn’t marry a divorced person in the Church of England was absurd and out of date. Yet the queen, despite personally supporting the marriage, chose not to give her permission, leaving her sister heartbroken and resentful. (The decision certainly came back to haunt the queen; three of her four children eventually went through divorces, too.)
It can be argued that America has many out-of-date institutions today: a foreign policy that’s still finding its way in the post-Cold War era; trade relationships that pre-date the rise of China; occupational licensing and union rules that pre-date technology which changed the nature of work; zoning regulations that pre-date the resurgence of cities. Throw in a government that is too divided with partisan rancor to change much of anything, and America seems ripe for a bull in a china shop to come in and smash up the bad institutions.
It feels like we are getting exactly that in Trump, a Republican who feels no great reverence for the Republican party; a flip-flopper who shows little attachment to dogma, an admitted liar and exaggerator who displays zero regard for the truth. Also: a candidate who flouted campaign tradition and refused to release his tax returns, a president-elect who trolls his critics on Twitter, and an elected official who’s ignoring calls to place his business in a blind trust as an assurance that his office won’t be used for profiteering.
The lying and the lack of ethics around his business interests are indefensible. But, on the other hand, America probably needs an apolitical president who puts his judgement ahead of party preferences. And maybe future generations will find it strange if their politicians don’t make crafty use of social media to interact with the public, fire up their base, and call out their enemies. It’s jarring, but sometimes it takes someone who doesn’t play by the rules to change them.
The constant tsk-tsking from the establishment is reminiscent of the stuffy royal staff’s displeasure at the love affair Margaret was attempting to hide. You can’t help but root for her. In the same way, there is visceral pleasure to be found in watching established media and Washington insiders freak out over every Trump tweet. Similarly, the éminences grises were shocked when Trump took a phone call from the Taiwanese president. Doesn’t he know that ever since 1979, we pretend Taiwan isn’t an independent democracy? Only, it is one.
Diplomacy is full of norms that sound strange to non-experts. Trump will probably disregard many of them and that may not be such a terrible thing.
But as in the case of Taiwan and the One China policy that Trump clearly flouted, throwing out traditions on the fly, without careful planning, poses a risk.
Institutions might feel outdated and restrictive. But they do tend to keep us safe and provide consistency. Democratic institutions generally help keep power in check. They make it possible to establish property rights, to take risks in business, to protect our civil liberties, and offer reassurances to allies. It is a fine balance to throw out bad institutions while keeping the good ones.
In The Crown, the queen constantly wrestles with whether you can pull the string without a total unraveling.
The scandal over her uncle’s abdication haunted the young queen. At one point, she wanted to promote Martin Charteris as her private secretary, passing over Michael Adeane, who was next in line, because she felt she knew Charteris better. Tommy Lascelles, the outgoing secretary, explained why this was a bad idea.
It’s in the small things that the rot starts, do the wrong thing once and it is easy to do it again; do the individualist thing once and it is easy to do it again. In the case of your uncle, it started with wanting to use Buckingham palace simply as his office and York House as his home. Then he stopped attended church, decided he wanted to sell Sandringham. He dismissed courtiers that served under his father in favor of younger, sycophantic supplicants. Of course, no one saw the abdication then, but ego, the willfulness, the individualism, the rot, had set in.
And when the abdication came, it caused a constitutional crisis and threatened the future of the monarchy.
Looking toward the Trump presidency, the question looms: Will he have the wisdom, humility, and foresight to shake up institutions that need it, while preserving the ones that matter? If he goes too far, America would face a constitutional crisis of its own. If he doesn’t go far enough, the bitter campaign he waged, the blind faith of his supporters, and the outrage from his detractors, all will have been for naught.
America’s institutions were built to withstand a range of election outcomes, but they require reverence—not only from those who hold office, but also from the citizenry. That is why it is critical to accept the election result and judge Trump fairly while he is in the White House. Hold him accountable for bad choices and also give him credit where it is due. But above all, be mindful of how his actions impact the nation’s institutions. They’re far too hearty to break under the weight of one man’s Twitter account, but they are worth every bit of watchful protection the American electorate can afford.