Donald Trump caused some concern last week when he appeared to praise Chinese President Xi Jinping’s removal of term limits on the president from the Chinese constitution, clearing the path for him to become “president for life.” At a fundraiser in Florida, Trump said, “He’s now president for life. President for life. No, he’s great.” He then added, to enthusiastic cheers: “I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot some day.”
Perhaps Trump was joking about China’s removal of presidential term limits from the constitution, but the U.S. wasn’t laughing when removing presidential term limits from the Honduran constitution was being considered. Washington backed a coup instead.
How many consecutive terms turns a president into a dictator? Many parliamentary democracies lack term limits. In Britain, Robert Walpole was prime minister for almost 21 years. William Pitt the Younger served for almost 19 and Thatcher and Blair served for 12 and 10 respectively. Washington never called Thatcher or Blair a dictator. In Canada, William Lyon Mackenzie King served as P.M. for more than 21 years. Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, served for almost 19, and Pierre Elliot Trudeau, father of the current prime minister, served for 15.
Term limits became a constitutional issue early in America. Many of the framers backed lifetime appointment for presidents. Alexander Hamilton and James Madison both supported lifetime terms. So did others. One person would have swung the vote as it was defeated by a margin of only six votes to four.
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