The Founders and Donald Trump

Author: Gary Hart

The Founders of the United States created a republic on a scale never before attempted.  In doing so, they hewed closely to the principles of historic republicanism from Athens and pre-imperial Rome forward through Venice, the Swiss cantons, Machiavelli, Montesquieu, and the English and Scottish Enlightenments.  They feared most of all corruption in the form of special pleading factions and concentration of power in an executive, especially one with an unconventional agenda.

As argued before by this writer [The Republic of Conscience], we have succumbed to the first of these fears in the past three decades.  The question for consideration is whether we are edging toward the second.

The vaunted “balance of power” government they created was the principal bulwark against concentration of power in the Executive.  The Legislative branch alone can enact new laws or repeal old ones.  The Judicial branch can declare Executive branch rules and Legislative branch laws unconstitutional.

At least that is what the framers of the Constitution and Founders of our Republic intended.  But the “checks and balances” government does not always work perfectly.  The Judicial branch can decide that private corporations, legal constructs, have the same freedom of speech rights as private citizens [Citizens United].  The Executive can dispatch military forces to the far corners of the earth without the Legislative branch declaring war as required by the Constitution.  And the Legislative branch, especially when constituting a majority of the Executive’s Party, can expand Executive authority to govern by fiat, such as single-handedly and arbitrarily dismantling the previously enacted Affordable Care Act.

Though steeped in history and skeptical of human excess, the Founders assumed on the part of all three branches of Government that an enlightened and educated citizenry would demand that the national interest always be placed ahead of party and ideology.  If men were angels, they knew, government would not be necessary.

Early on the Founders decried “factions”.  But very soon factions formed, Parties were created, and ideologies began to dominate the national interest.  Fissures, formed by slavery, region, economic interests (manufacturing versus agriculture), income gaps, and more, cracked and widened.

Very little in the Constitutional debate addressed how fissures such as these, the frictions they created, and most of all the domination by one Party of all three branches of government, thus erasing the checks and balances, should be dealt with.

The Founders were idealistic but not naïve.  They were, as John Kennedy said, idealists without illusions.  Early on they dealt with populism in the form of Shay’s Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion and were not loath to use force to put down rebellions that even faintly suggested insurrection.

The shorthand description for our recent political upheaval is, for lack of more sophisticated analysis, populism.  There is a pattern of populist uprisings, usually during eras of economic upheaval (late 19th century agrarian rebellion, the Great Depression).  It is now commonly believed that globalization, technology, cultural revolutions, and mass migrations have created the conditions for the rise of Donald Trump, an unlikely populist to say the least.

Populists of the past, William Jennings Bryan, to name one of the tamest, seldom have risen to occupy the Executive branch, with their Party simultaneously controlling the Legislative and Judicial branches.

The peculiar brand of Trump populism seems motivated only by irrational repudiation of his predecessor’s record and retreat from 70 years of U.S. world leadership, both strange if not irrational motivations.

We all have our theories as to where all this unique period will lead us.  Historians with the broadest perspective seem to take the position that the nation is strong enough to weather even unprecedented behavior and destructive conduct.  We are now testing that national strength.

Will the “center”, representing the norms of the past and the dwindling company of statesmen, keep the nation on a stable path?  Will men and women of principle and thoughtfulness emerge to protect our national principles?  Will those in power now attempting to repeal decades of bipartisan progress in health, education, environment, climate, and much else be able to institute irreparable harm?

Thus, our nation faces a challenge from within, not from international fascism and communism, but from forces of regression, isolation, and delight in chaos.  Will they succeed?  That will depend on the strength and virtue of the American people.

10 Responses to “The Founders and Donald Trump”

  1. Elizabeth Miller Says:

    >>>> “Will the “center”, representing the norms of the past and the dwindling company of statesmen, keep the nation on a stable path? Will men and women of principle and thoughtfulness emerge to protect our national principles? Will those in power now attempting to repeal decades of bipartisan progress in health, education, environment, climate, and much else be able to institute irreparable harm?”

    I think it’s worth asking and understanding HOW national principles will be protected. If that conversation happens then I am sure that there will be an ample supply of principled and thoughtful Americans who will emerge and who have the capacity to put your nation back on a stable path toward positive change.

    Trump’s populism is a serious problem because it is inextricably linked to nationalism.

    What we need now is a kind of planetary populism that sincerely seeks to address the legitimate local and global grievances of our time that, if left unresolved, may extend the Trump era beyond the Trump presidency and lead to inevitable and irreparable harm.

  2. Neil McCarthy Says:

    Ms. Miller is correct. In periods of economic stress, populism married to nationalism has roughly led to fascism.

    Fascism was not the outcome in the United States in the late 19th century because the populists never gained ultimate power and their economic agenda was later subsumed in progressivism. There was, however, a risk. Populists of that era were often strong supporters of Jim Crow and some were anti-immigration.

    Fascism was not the outcome in the United States in the 1930s because of the New Deal. FDR created structures that helped restore balance among the various economic classes, and a regulatory state that helped to quell the excesses of that era’s 1%.

    Fascism. of course, was the outcome in Germany and Italy in the 1930s, countries that were not able to ameliorate the economic effects of the Great Depression without appeals to “blood and soil.”

    Whether Trumpism becomes fascism today in the United States largely depends upon whether the nation’s response to economic inequality rejects the xenophobic and authoritarian impulses and pronouncements that characterize the current President. This is an open question and, for what it’s worth, there are no signs that Trump himself is going to change his stripes. The burden is on the Congress and the Courts and the citizenry to stop him.

    There are some positive signs. The courts have thusfar stopped the travel ban. Congress has refused to gut the ACA, which would have made the inequality problem worse. John McCain has squarely opposed “blood and soil” nationalism, as well as any retreat from the principles that have produced relative world order for the last 70 years. And citizens have resisted on various fronts and in various forms.

    On the downside, however, Roy Moore may become a Senator, 37% of the people support Trump apparently regardless of what he says or does, Bannon is working to move the Republican Party in the direction of exactly the kind of nationalism we need to avoid, and the number of Republicans willing to call out the President on any single day is depressingly small.

    The Founders created a Republic, so Ben Franklin said, “if we could keep it.” They knew republics were fragile, and today, Franklin’s warning is as prescient as ever.

  3. Elizabeth Miller Says:

    >>>> “Whether Trumpism becomes fascism today in the United States largely depends upon whether the nation’s response to economic inequality rejects the xenophobic and authoritarian impulses and pronouncements that characterize the current President.”

    This is key, Neil. It is the response by the country’s leaders to economic inequality, racial inequality and to other deleterious impacts of globalization as well as their ability to communicate the positive impacts of a highly interdependent and interconnected world that will dictate what kind of populism prevails.

    The era of Trump has opened up extraordinary opportunities for supporting thoughtful and principled solutions to the problems that plague our world and for up-wing politicians with vision and the courage to fulfill it to lead the way.

    Do the Democrats and enlightened Republicans understand this?

  4. Eric Jacobson Says:

    “Life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans” John Lennon said (in his song “Beautiful Boy”). Just so with American politics: An entire industry has arisen devoted to “looking beyond” President Trump and his neo-populism, and treating it as an aberrational hiccup in the “American experience” — the anodyne term to which PBS reduces and (essentially) whitewashes every momentous and heart- and gut-wrenching American historical event or series of events (as with Ken Burns’ latest misadventure with the catastrophic Vietnam War).

    One recent example among legion is Norman J. Ornstein’s and E.J. Dionne, Jr.’s book titled “One Nation After Trump: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate, and the Non-Yet Deported.” Another example is the manner in which the mainstream commercial media has literally gone “through the looking glass” into a wonderland in which Russian governmental operatives or Russian political activists materially affected our 2016 presidential election in “collusion” with candidate Trump and/or some of his political aides. This is a hoax that “keeps on giving” simply because it springs eternal hope that Trump’s presidency was not legitimately earned and is destined to ignominiously end prematurely as a consequence. (Dream on.)

    But while books are written and mainstream pundits bleat and erudite blogs churn out copy in a similar vein, the Trump presidency — true, a “hot mess” if there ever was one — marches on. And every American presidency (even the minor and now forgotten ones) is consequential in real time.

    For example, after (“strategically” or simply recklessly — one never knows with the incumbent president) putting the medical insurance of millions of Americans (many if not MOST of whom are Trump’s own voters) at risk by canceling the federal government’s payments to insurance companies that enable them to subsidize the costs of the insurance they provide lower-income Americans, Trump is now engaged in some kind of sadistic tease with the sponsors of a crucial bipartisan remedial bill written by Senators Alexander and McCaskill that would restore the feds’ payments to insurance companies in a timely manner as part of an on-going larger bipartisan process to fix and/or replace Obamacare with something better.

    (I predict President Trump will come around on the Alexander-McCaskill bill simply because if he doesn’t that alone would guarantee his inability to win re-election in 2020, something that is fast-eluding him anyway due to his unwillingness to recruit competent non-rightist staff that could help him become a reasonably normal bipartisan president. Historians will puzzle over why he chose to blacken his and his family’s name with the moniker “worst president ever” when he could have so easily avoided it.)

    A lesser noted (potentially highly consequential) drama is happening “as we speak” with respect to the legally mandated release of all the remaining government documents pertaining to the assassination of President Kennedy. The back-story here is that Congress passed the JFK Records Act in 1992 in the wake of Oliver Stone’s movie JFK, which provoked renewed interest in the subject essentially for the first time since Sen. Hart’s candidacy for the 1984 Democratic presidential nomination had likewise done, due to both superficial and substantive resemblances between JFK and Hart — a comparison that can’t be pushed too far given their diametrically opposite geographic (Eastern vs. Western U.S.) and class (rich vs. humble) backgrounds.

    President Trump has a few days left in which to decide whether to knuckle-under to intelligence agency pressure to keep at least some of the embargoed documents under seal past the statutory 25 year deadline for full release. News reports (eg. https://www.alternet.org/has-trump-cut-deal-cia-and-fbi-secret-jfk-records ) indicate that the spooks want to keep some of the remaining documents from the American people for another quarter century, beyond the lifespans of many of us who were young at the time of JFK’s CLEARLY-still-unsolved murder in Dallas, and who wish to see the case solved and correctly closed during our own lifetimes. What could the remaining documents possibly reveal about the past that would cause today’s incumbent spooks to wish to prolong the secrecy?

    Even more importantly, is there an outside possibility that some of the authors of JFK’s assassination and the very elaborate cover-up which followed are still alive and might be put on trial for the domestic crime of the 20th century?

    I have been open to various theories concerning JFK’s assassination, including the possibility that intelligence operatives working for Fidel Castro’s Communist government in Cuba might have done it to prevent a planned invasion of their island the US military may have had scheduled for the Spring of 1964, which JFK was rumored to have been planning (to ensure a landslide victory in the 1964 presidential election). Gus Russo’s book titled “Live by the Sword: The Secret War Against Castro and the Death of JFK” goes into this possible scenario.

    It is also plausible to me that all the events of Nov. 22, 1963 (except the “hit” itself) were choreographed by the Administration as a “false flag” operation meant to justify a subsequent invasion of Cuba on the grounds that Castro’s government had attempted to assassinate the American president and failed only due to the poor marksmanship of “Cuba’s operative” Lee Harvey Oswald, a “known Communist sympathizer” etc.. In this scenario, it could be that Oswald (who was actually working for us) did his job in the false flag operation and shot and missed from the School Book Depository. But that Castro’s agents got wind of the false flag scheme and sent in assassins to actually kill the president in hopes of saving their Communist regime.

    With this in mind, it also occurred to me that the plethora of books questioning the “official story” might have been the product of the rather large network of actual Communist sympathizers in our country anxious to deflect any inquiry into the possibility that Castro’s agents did it, something that, if discovered, would amply justify a bloody U.S. military invasion and overthrow of the Cuban government.

    But I recently I ran across and watched one of the best efforts of one of those who the powers-that-be most deride as “conspiracy theorists”, a documentary titled “Dark Legacy” made by a researcher named John Hankey: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B002Q79WMM/ref=ox_sc_act_title_1?ie=UTF8&psc=1&smid=A2GJPZD53BU9LN . It took me full circle to my suspicions formed at the time I first saw the Zapruder film, “samizdat”-type copies of which were floating around the country, at a public screening in 1972 or 1973 in Berkeley, California, where I did my undergraduate studies. My conclusion back then was that JFK had been murdered in an internal rightist coup e’etat. (I mentioned it in my comment to Sen. Hart’s July 13, 2017 main blog post here: http://www.mattersofprinciple.com/?p=1440 . The proximity of the 1963 assassination to the 1962 publication of Seven Days in May, which novel was plainly a roman-a-clef-type warning, is likely NOT coincidental.)

    Mr. Hankey has done an outstanding job of presenting in a fairly methodical and rather persuasive manner an expository account of the players and events of that fateful history-changing event. And the case he makes is as unsettling as it is compelling.

    President Trump: On the off-chance you see this comment, I urge you to “do the right thing” and release this month ALL the remaining records pertaining to the assassination of President Kennedy. While it is unlikely there is any “smoking gun” among the still-embargoed documents, if such a document should exist, it’s long past time to release it and “let the chips fall where they may.” If you do Mr. President, historians will accord you an honorable mention.

  5. Elizabeth Miller Says:

    Eric,

    Interesting post and, thanks for the paragraphs! 🙂

    Have you ever read Best Evidence: Disguise and deception in the assassination of John F. Kennedy?

    I’m always amazed that this extraordinary book/investigation has received so little attention. I came across it while watching Nightline with Ted Koppel, many years ago.

    I think “conspiracy theorist” got its bad name as a result of this horrific event and it was a way of diminishing the seriousness of questioning the official record of what happened. Very convenient for the conspirators, no? And, there didn’t have to be more than a handful of people involved who were in positions to manipulate the actions of many others.

    I doubt the document release will shed much light but, who knows. I think it’s time to know all that is knowable.

    Just when I think I have FINALLY set this event aside and moved on, someone writes a comment about it on a blog.

    I’ve concluded that it is not possible to have a serious conversation with serious people about what really happened that day … just as the few co-conspirators would have wished. 🙁

  6. LORENZO CHERIN Says:

    Our host sets the frame for a debate even as he really at times inspires us to often cheer , such are the levels of agreement.

    Elizabeth Miller responds with the sort of thoughtfulness we need.

    My view though is , as an Englishman whose wife is of American origin, we need a progressive internationalism , that is a social liberalism, by which I mean , a modern liberalism, fused with a social democracy.Populism,not a new conservatism, for the prejudiced and jaundiced, nor revived socialism, is the answer. And alt right nationalism, is all wrong !

    The trouble with the centre ground, or center, as you folks say, is , it is where most common sense is, and common sense, unlike the book of Paine, which was actually only part common sense , part incendiary, like and unlike his Rights of man, is actually both moderate and radical.

    The solutions of FDR , were to the left of JFK, yet those , like all of us , who have come into this world after both, even, as me, after both have left herein, can see that they were Liberals, social, modern, new, Liberals. They did not seek the dismantleing of systems, but they changing of societies. Poverty, racism, inequality,unemployment, these are the things we need to ever worry about, not the naming and shaming of economic ways and means alone.Nobody is ever going to crate a socialist utopia anymore than a conservative haven.

    The world is one. We are many . Both and all of us , are different , and similar too. The ability to share this truth and do something about the realisation, therein lies a cause.

  7. LORENZO CHERIN Says:

    P.s.

    Populism is the answer, only in ,it is knowing it at it,s worst ,and most increasingly maddening modern version, that we seek to meet it head on.We need , in a phrase , knowing populism means the promotion of that which is wholly popular, in many ways, a popular liberalism.

  8. Elizabeth Miller Says:

    Eric,

    I just took a cursory look at your link about Dark Legacy.

    I simply cannot wrap my mind around the idea that GHWB had anything to do with this. Apparently, the director uses a lot of circumstantial evidence to back his theory.

    Best Evidence is centered on the best evidence available – the body. This investigation is as thorough as they come and relies most heavily on the medical forensic evidence.

  9. Elizabeth Miller Says:

    By the way, when I say ‘serious people’ I am referring to people whose job it is to report and/or analyze political events and former/sitting politicians.

  10. Joshua Douglass Says:

    I personally blame the evils of the one-percent more than anything else for the position we find ourselves in at this juncture. It seems to me that there is a SPIRITual war going on and, for some reason, there is a “gravitational” pull towards the lesser beings among US(A) who are the puppet masters producing the horror show all earthly beings are experiencing. I wish more people could come to an understanding that each and every one of us should be fearful that failing to get on the right side of this battle will probably not bode well for those who decide to fall in with the wrong side. For while the puppet masters are now in full control…individuals still have the free will to RESIST!

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