I will be blunt: our country is woefully illiterate about and unappreciative of our founding documents and thinkers. There’s simply no other way to describe our collective feeling of helplessness over the actions of Donald Trump, and the concurrent idea that Trump’s ascendancy is a sign of the failure of our governmental architecture.
This couldn’t be further from the truth. As Jay Cost and Luke Thompson pointed out in their excellent podcast, there was a widespread animus against true democracy in the late 18th/early 19th century. The relatively undemocratic nature of presidential elections was meant as a bulwark against what we would today call a populist; future reforms and opening up of the process largely undid this.
But even so, the Founders knew that a man like Donald Trump–brash, ignorant, intemperate–could still become president. It was, in fact, the inspiration for almost the entire Constitution! The Founders designed a system that would, if adhered to, constrain the worst vices of men. Here’s James Madison in Federalist 51:
A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions. This policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives, might be traced through the whole system of human affairs, private as well as public. We see it particularly displayed in all the subordinate distributions of power, where the constant aim is to divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other that the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights.
Madison’s masterful essay describes the separation of powers; the Founders’ deliberate scheme of ensuring that no man or cadre of men could enact grand designs on their own. Power was to be split between both federal and state governments and among the individual branches.
And here’s Alexander Hamilton–who was pro executive-power by the standards of his time–in Federalist 69:
The President of the United States would be an officer elected by the people for FOUR years; the king of Great Britain is a perpetual and HEREDITARY prince. The one would be amenable to personal punishment and disgrace; the person of the other is sacred and inviolable. The one would have a QUALIFIED negative upon the acts of the legislative body; the other has an ABSOLUTE negative. The one would have a right to command the military and naval forces of the nation; the other, in addition to this right, possesses that of DECLARING war, and of RAISING and REGULATING fleets and armies by his own authority. The one would have a concurrent power with a branch of the legislature in the formation of treaties; the other is the SOLE POSSESSOR of the power of making treaties. The one would have a like concurrent authority in appointing to offices; the other is the sole author of all appointments. The one can confer no privileges whatever; the other can make denizens of aliens, noblemen of commoners; can erect corporations with all the rights incident to corporate bodies. The one can prescribe no rules concerning the commerce or currency of the nation; the other is in several respects the arbiter of commerce, and in this capacity can establish markets and fairs, can regulate weights and measures, can lay embargoes for a limited time, can coin money, can authorize or prohibit the circulation of foreign coin. The one has no particle of spiritual jurisdiction; the other is the supreme head and governor of the national church! What answer shall we give to those who would persuade us that things so unlike resemble each other? The same that ought to be given to those who tell us that a government, the whole power of which would be in the hands of the elective and periodical servants of the people, is an aristocracy, a monarchy, and a despotism.
Hamilton is laying waste to claims that the president would be similar to Britain’s king; the former is dependent upon other branches for any substantial exercise of power.
Hundreds of years later, this still applies…in theory. The contemporary American president cannot legally declare war, levy taxes or raise revenue, pass legislation, unilaterally enforce treaties, punish speech, enforce sanctions on select commercial groups, dictate economic policy, etc.
What happened? The answer is complicated and multifaceted, but the short version is that congress has repeatedly abdicated its vital role as a check on executive power. Congress has delegated its many enumerated powers to presidentially-appointed regulators and military personnel. (When we hear any legislator bemoaning executive abuses, it’s almost always from a member of the opposition party.) And when a member of congress is in the same party as the president, they’re all too happy to ignore constitutional restraints to pass their agenda, oblivious to the long-term ramifications of such abuses.
So you’re not a fan of Donald Trump and you don’t know what to do? There are three easy steps you can take:
1) Brush up on the Constitution and the Federalist Papers. (Cost/Thompson’s podcast is, again, a vital free resource with zero partisan bent.)
2) Write your local congressperson and tell them to do their job as enforcers of the Constitutional order.
3) Most importantly: The next time a Democrat is in the Oval Office, keep doing “2”!