“I play to people’s fantasies.”
–Donald Trump, The Art of the Deal
It took 229 years, but one incarnation of the Founding Fathers’ worst nightmare has arrived: Donald Trump.
He’s just the sort of charismatic charlatan who surely would have inspired queasiness among the Founders about the wisdom of heaving off a king and crowning “We, the People.”
The Founders were sick of royal misrule, subjugation and injustice. They placed their bets on the common sense of the common man — and on his ability to comprehend, and sensibly manage, civic affairs.
But they were not fools. They appear to have been well aware of the inherent danger of democracy, of the fearsome consequences of mindless mob rule. They knew that many wayward moving parts had to fall into place to keep their astonishing experiment with self rule from derailing.
They gambled on democracy anyway. It was a courageous leap of faith, and it has resonated powerfully across the globe for nearly a quarter of a millennium. But nowhere is it written that any democracy is destined to last forever.
Ben Franklin understood this. There’s that famous anecdote, reportedly recorded by a Maryland delegate to the 1787 closed-door Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, recounting Franklin’s exchange with a Mrs. Powel at the conclusion of the convention.
“Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?’” she asked Franklin.
“A republic, madam, if you can keep it,” he responded.
Franklin had other timely thoughts on self-governance: “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become more corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”
And, lo, an aspiring master has appeared. Lucky us.
Much has been made of Donald Trump’s audacious disregard of facts, law and human decency. Rules simply are not for him. That’s a defining characteristic of an authoritarian autocrat.
Already had a king
But wait! Been here, done this kingly thing. Are we really going to go there again? Hello?
A consummate con man, Trump calculatingly endorses and empowers the worst human impulses, figuring — quite rightly — that votes are to be had by heedlessly racing to the bottom. He celebrates stupidity, bigotry, incivility, violence, lying, fear. And the scary part? The applause is deafening. Thank Trump for a vivid object lesson in the dark side of democracy.
Though Trump’s been at great pains to demonstrate that he lacks the temperament, intellect and judgment necessary to lead a democracy, some delusional luminaries in the Republican establishment are closing ranks behind him. They apparently believe they’ll be able to control the ungovernable Trump once he’s in the Oval Office. Good luck with that.
More grounded Republicans who don’t share this delusion are speaking up.
“It would be possible to justify support for Trump if he merely promised a period of chaos for conservatism,” writes conservative columnist Ross Douthat in the New York Times. “But to support Trump for the presidency is to invite chaos upon the republic and the world. No policy goal, no court appointment, can justify such recklessness.”
No “serious political party” should ever nominate a candidate like Trump, Douthat adds, regardless of how many delegates he’s won in the primaries. “The less-than-democratic side of party nominations is a virtue of our system, not a flaw, and it has often been a necessary check on the passions (Trumpian or otherwise) that mass democracy constantly threatens to unleash.”
Douthat points out that it took only 35 per cent of Republican primary voters to foist Trump off on the party as its presumptive nominee. Douthat argues this means that delegates at the Cleveland convention “may face a straightforward choice: Betray the large minority of Republicans who cast their votes for Trump, or betray their obligation to their country. For a party proud of its patriotism, the choice should not be hard.” Amen.
Trump’s arrival on the political playing field comes at an inconvenient moment in our nation’s history. Two of our three co-equal branches of government are on extended vacation.
The U.S. Supreme Court is marooned on its bench in a four-four ideological tie. For this, thank recalcitrant Republican senators who won’t hold hearings on President Obama’s nominee to fill the vacancy on the court. They ask us to believe the fantastical fiction that Obama no longer has the presidential powers granted him by the electorate because his term soon will end.
This means the court is unlikely to tackle certain cases. Until a new justice is seated, the laws of the land will be decreed by various lower federal district courts, sort of. Their decisions will not constitute final legal precedent. Enshrining legal precedent is what we pay the U.S. Supreme Court to do.
This standoff is just one lame result of the cavalier dereliction of constitutional duty that permeates the U.S. Congress. Collectively, these people have hardly done a day’s work in eight years. It’s not only that it’s galling to pay your hired hands $174,000 a year to sit around doing precious little except dial for dollars while the country falls apart.
Congress, in my view, has seriously weakened the nation by demonstrating that it cannot, will not, function. Compromise is unthinkable, treasonous. That’s opened the door for a lightheaded political phony like Trump. He callously feeds our justifiable frustrations with gridlocked government by peddling daffy remedies and dangerous fantasies.
And if “We, the People” swallow enough of this seductive swill? Watch out.
Solveig Torvik lives in Winthrop.
Solveig Torvik lives in Winthrop.