This has been Trump’s clear governing philosophy from his inauguration, but rarely has he explicitly stated the extent to which he believes he can — or should — control the government. In a recent interview with Laura Ingraham of Fox News, Trump sadly remarked “the saddest thing is that because I’m the president of the United States I’m not supposed to be involved with the Justice Department, I’m not supposed to be involved with the FBI, I’m not supposed to be doing the kinds of things I would love to be doing and I’m very frustrated by it. I look at what’s happening with the Justice Department, why aren’t they going after Hillary Clinton with her emails and with the dossier and the kind of money…?”
In other words, Trump thinks that, by virtue of being president, he should control every action of the entire executive branch. As the head of state and government, Trump believes he should dictate what the FBI investigates and how the DoJ operates; justice naturally flows from the singular authority at government’s apex. Such a conception of presidential power is entirely monarchical and authoritarian.
He went on to add that “a lot of justice…[is] tied up forever in the court system. You look at some of the cases that are going on forever and you have them dead to rights? Now, the justice system has to go quicker and it has to be, really, stronger and fairer.” Justice should move at the speed of what Trump deems proper. Rights, so Trump’s answer implies, do not come from nature and are not enshrined by the Constitution and should be curtailed at his direction. Too many rights block administration of what Trump considers justice.
Trump’s next morning tweets continued this theme of ignoring the political insulation of the FBI and DoJ and the existing notions of fair justice as he called for his political appointees to investigate Hillary Clinton and the Democrats, a truly authoritarian idea. As the state, Trump believes he should have the ability to call for investigations and, angry that he can’t, he does the next best thing: Urges investigations against dissidents, putting the FBI and DoJ in an impossible situation by either opening politically-motivated investigations over non-scandals or ignore the president who can summarily dismiss them. If can’t openly control the state’s actions, he tries to coerce certain behavior.
Where he does have flexibility, Trump seizes it. Foreign policy provides presidents with their best ability to act unilaterally as Congress, especially the Senate, has ceded much policy power to the president. Trump’s an irrational actor and has failed to appoint many key State Department positions. He’s tangled with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and undermined his job by directly contradicting Tillerson’s statements and tweeting, on numerous occasions, on the futility of North Korean diplomacy.
Undermining the Secretary of State and taking diplomatic tools off the table while weakening the State Department through vacancies doesn’t matter because, as Trump says, “I’m the only one that matters because…that’s what the policy is going to be.” He has monopoly over foreign policy and no one else matters, not the chief diplomat, not the thousands of consulate and embassy staffers, not the scholars and wonks in Foggy Bottom, no one.
Trump wants his political appointees and hires to target opposition leaders over non-scandals — and, even if ever so slightly scandalous, not remotely close to illegal behavior. Imagine conservative reaction had President Barack Obama urged Loretta Lynch to investigate Mitt Romney for any contrived bullshit.
Imagine if Obama urged Lynch to investigate Trump’s tax returns! Conservative outrage would rightly dominate weeks of political coverage because this is not normal. But now right-wing media, acting as a state propaganda outlet, simply echoes these calls and promotes inane conspiracies about the opposition during widely-watched prime-time TV shows.
Imagine seeing this in another country. How would we — how would you — react if a far-right party in Germany gained power and then called for federal investigations into Angela Merkel or other centrist parties? I have to imagine it would chill you at least a little bit. Trump’s actions should do the same. We have a long history of liberal democracy and institutions designed well to withstand someone like Trump. But as the Founders understood, democratic faith and continuance comes from the people. When they stop believing in those norms, liberal democracy will slowly wither.
Throughout President Barack Obama’s tenure, and especially in its waning years, conservatives lambasted his governing through executive orders. They have a point: The Constitution specifically gives Congress the power to legislate, limiting the president to faithful execution of those duly enacted laws. Over time, however, the growing power of the president — the imperial presidency — has seen these chief magistrates increasingly assume quasi legislative powers. But this rightful critique of Obama falls way to praise for President Donald Trump when he acts unilaterally to enact sweeping policy decisions; Trump carries further Obama’s tendency to executive orders and has used this extra-constitutional power [more in 9 months than Obama did in 8 years]. Conservatives, to retain credibility, must also hold Trump accountable for his governing through executive orders.
Executive orders undermining duly enacted legislation shows both an assumption of legislative power and a willingness to bypass the legislature to accomplish policy goals. Undermining and putting into doubt the future of existing legislation is obviously a legislative feat, especially considering the president is tasked with faithfully executing the laws, not picking some of which to let the legislative will slide. It blurs the line between two separately empowered branches of government and leads to overlap of duty which the president, as head of state and government (and the only elected official representing all people), uses to declare supremacy and thus assume more power. This becomes especially important in times of mixed legislative control or when a weak president fails to get his legislative program passed through Congress. Trump, of course, failed in his healthcare repeal and replace attempts, so he’s deliberately undermining existing law to grease the skids for a future repeal attempt. On top of hurting Americans, it’s a power grab paradoxically made possible by Trump’s very weakness as party leader.
Trump’s actions have a direct, and at times coercive, effect on the American people, a power wielded generally just by the legislature (and, even then, only with the pulling of many teeth). He stretches the bounds of presidential authority by assuming legislative powers and failing to faithfully executive the laws (his oath of office). Conservatives and Republicans rightly criticized Obama for reliance on executive orders; they must now do the same to Trump, whose reliance on such actions surpasses Obama’s. Though actions may be favored, for sake of logical constituency and to avoid hypocrisy, conservatives must speak against Trump’s executive orders and actions.
Perennial Alabama statewide candidate and Senate frontrunner Roy Moore seems unaware of his ceaseless hypocrisy. He routinely calls for Congress and especially the judiciary (Moore is the twice-former Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court) to respect the Constitution and abide by its words and understood meaning. All politicians say this, of course, and most mean it. But Moore doesn’t and his hypocrisy lies in the fact that he twice had to leave his elected position for failing to follow federal law. Moore cannot simultaneously call for others to follow the Constitution’s word when he has long ignored it when doing so fit his purposes.
Just today, he released a statement on a federal judge blocking President Donald Trump’s transgender military ban, writing “Unless we return to faithful obedience to the Constitution and the separation of powers set therein, our form of government and our liberties will be in dire jeopardy.” He also called for the judge’s impeachment, a worrying precedent he would establish in the Senate: Impeaching a judge for decisions with which any individual senator disagrees.
The separation of powers is perhaps the fundamental philosophical underpinning of our Constitution. Powers do not overlap, but do constrain other branches of government (or other chambers within a single branch). This important innovation, made popular by Enlightenment writer Montesquieu, prevents any one branch from becoming too powerful and using that consolidated authority to encroach on the liberties of those from whom the Constitution’s power arise — the people.
Restraints also bound judicial power, something which irked Roy Moore during both of his briefs stints on the Alabama Supreme Court. The strength of Moore’s religious conviction and his anger towards a secular government that, through the First Amendment, enshrines the separation of church and state makes him a theocrat, one who wants to laws and government to align with and enforce the theological teachings of a particular religion (Moore’s religion).
Moore denied a lesbian custody of her children simply because of her sexual orientation, which he called “an inherent evil” that shouldn’t be tolerated. He used taxpayer dollars to erect a monument to the Ten Commandments in the Alabama state court house, which a federal judge found to violate the Constitution by endorsing a certain religion over others (and causing negative effects in the workplace). Moore refused to move the statute despite an order from a superior court. His refusal to follow principles of judicial hierarchy in place since the country’s inception simply because they conflicted with his firm religious belief that all should idolize the Ten Commandments resulted in his first removal from office.
After Alabama again elected Moore to the same post, he maintained his theological ways by ordering the Alabama judiciary to ignore the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell, which legalized same-sex marriage across the land. His decision, which clearly violated established constitutional law and the obvious letter of the Constitution, represented tyranny from the bench: Ignoring the rule of law, he tried to supplant the Supreme Court with his own opinion, despite its hateful belief that the state should not recognize all love equally simply because of the writings in an ancient text that has no governing power. Moore again had to leave the bench for his illegal behavior.
It’s hypocritical for the same man who spurned constitutional law and federal orders that triggered him for their secularization and non-conformity with his orthodox religious views to lecture others on respecting and following the Constitution. His actions denied the liberty of others — a workplace and government property free of religious endorsements and the ability to marry a loved partner and be treated as legitimate and equal in the eyes of the lie.
Roy Moore is a hypocrite whose theologic beliefs control his actions and will dictate how he governs all Americans. He is a threat to the Constitution and the republic.
During the early years of the American republic, the Constitution existed simultaneously as a political and legal document to which all three branches of government — and, according to some, states — had the right to interpret, a far cry from today’s understanding of the Constitution as a solely legal document over which the legislative and executive branches may present arguments, but the judiciary held unilateral final interpretative power.
“Excesses of Democracy”
The American judiciary began as a weak institution during the Articles of Confederation. Almost religious-like belief in the people to elect an enlightened and liberty-respecting legislature meant that no executive and no strong judiciary would be needed to protect the rights of citizens. People, acting selflessly and dispassionately, would uphold a social contract between themselves and with the government.
That utopian vision failed as the Founders realized that the “excesses of democracy” brought factious interests to power and legislatures, empowered by the people, transgressed on rights (usually the property or rent rights of the landed American aristocracy, inasmuch as the early gentry could be considered “aristocratic”). Coming to fear the people, the Founders drafted and ratified a powerful and expansive constitution that brought the national government and its coercive powers directly to the people of the arguably sovereign, yet united, states.
The American people, the ultimate sovereigns, determined the extent of the Constitution. All legislatures had to abide by it, but the people would guarantee enforcement. Judicial review and action would not necessarily delimit the powers of the various legislatures since judges arguably did not represent the people.
Some delegates wanted representatives of the people to revise laws along with the judiciary. James Wilson, future Supreme Court justice, and George Mason urged creating a council of revision that included the president — representative of all people — and the judiciary. Interpretation had to include popular elements. Introducing overtly political figures in constitutional interpretation clearly that early theorists believed the Constitution to be a political document to which those whose power came directly from the people had a right to interpret.
Judicial Review and Supremacy
Chief Justice John Marshall disagreed with this idea. He found the Constitution a strictly legal document, which naturally gave the judiciary power to review laws and the supremacy to unilaterally declare them unconstitutional. Such actions would be legal in nature, not political, and not a rare occurrence to take place in only the gravest of circumstances (as many Founders believed early on; the first federal court to find a federal unconstitutional did so in an apologetic and conciliatory manner).
Marshall and other contemporaneous judges remade the Constitution as a legal document by interpreting it as they would a statute passed by a legislature. This included applying a derivative of English common law to the document and reading the Constitution for intent, context, and reasonableness — just as they would a law. Reading the Constitution as a type of super statute necessarily stripped it of any political interpretation and thus made obvious his argument in Marbury v. Madison that it was “emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is” — to say what the Constitution is.
Judges as Representatives of the People
This shift came with a reframing of the judiciary’s connection with the people. Alexander Hamilton first suggested that judges were in fact agents of the people to the same extent as were members of the legislature in Federalist 78, writing that it is logical “to suppose, that the courts were designed to be an intermediate body between the people and the legislature, in order, among other things, to keep the latter within the limits assigned their authority.”
The people, who willfully entered into the constitutional arrangement and ceded various pwoers to the federal government, needed judicial agents to keep the legislatures in check. “It only supposes that the power of the people is superior to both [the legislature and the judiciary]; and that where the will of the legislature, declared in its statutes, stands in opposition to that of the people, declared in the Constitution, the judges ought to be governed by the latter rather than the former. They ought to regulate their decisions by the fundamental laws, rather than by those which are not fundamental.”
Concurrently, and in response to shifting thoughts about the nature of the judiciary as representatives of the people, judges began to isolate themselves from political affairs and society began to embrace the idea of law as a science. An independent and powerful judiciary mandated qualified individuals to serve the people admirably and dispassionately. Though not an immediate transformation, changing legal theory in the 1790s and 1800s onward established the powerful judiciary we know today and enshrined the Constitution as the ultimate legal document; the supreme statute to which all individuals cede power and whose legitimacy arises only from the consent of those very people.
For more information on the early judiciary and history of the young republic, read Gordon S. Wood’s masterful “Empire of Liberty”and “Launching the ‘Extended Republic’: The Federalist Era” by Ronald Hoffman and Peter J. Albert.
The election of 1800 pushed the young American republic to the brink of a constitutional crisis. Just the fourth election, and the first truly competitive one, the Federalist and Republican parties — though they would bristle at such a label — organized candidate tickets, John Adams and Charles Pinckney and Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, respectively.
This innovation, a devolution into faction which so frightened the Founders, threatened the Electoral College because prior to the 12th Amendment, Electors had no way of differentiating between the president and vice-president. Designed without parties in mind, each elector cast two votes and the top two electoral vote getters receiving at least a majority (in 1800, 70 votes) would become president and vice-president.
However, with a party ticket and partisan electors choosing from preferential candidates rather than dispassionately selecting a president from the population, electors had to coordinate votes to ensure that they didn’t each cast their ballots for the president and vice-presidential hopeful; one elector had to cast one vote for a third candidate lest the presidential and vice-presidential designee end up with the same number of electoral votes.
Failing to do so would throw the election to the House of Representatives.
A Republican Coordination Failure
Federalists managed this feat, no easy task given difficultly of coordination in a nation that moved at the speed of horses, with one elector giving a vote to John Jay, leaving John Adams with 65 electoral votes and Charles Pinckney with 64. Republicans failed to execute their similar plan. Their electors cast 73 electoral votes for both Jefferson and Burr and the tied election went to the Federalist-controlled House of Representatives, which threatened to overturn the election, nullify results, or even pass legislation to install an interim chief magistrate.
In the House, state delegations each cast one vote for president with a majority (9) needed for victory. While Federalists dominated the chamber — they lost their majority in 1800, but the new Congress would not be seated until March — they only controlled eight delegations, short of a majority. Republicans controlled seven states and one, Vermont, had a split delegation.
All knew that Republicans picked (or intended) Thomas Jefferson as their presidential nominee, but that did not bind Federalists, most of whom despised the former vice-president. They wanted to deny him the presidency and so a number of them voted for Burr: Six Federalist delegations initially voted for Burr (all seven Republican delegations as well as Federalist Georgia voted for Jefferson). Vermont, split, cast a blank ballot. Maryland had five Federalists and three Republicans in its delegation — four Federalists voted for Burr while one voted for Jefferson along with the Republicans, leading to a blank ballot. No president had been decided.
These divisions — six states for Burr, eight for Jefferson, two blank — held for 35 ballots.
Hamilton’s History with Jefferson
Throughout the affair, Alexander Hamilton urged his Federalist colleagues to vote for Thomas Jefferson, his longtime nemesis, because he trusted Jefferson’s character and virtue whereas he found Burr unscrupulous and too self-serving, perfectly exemplified by his unwillingness to stand down after the election went to the House despite knowing his designation as vice-president.
It’s hard to overstate the depths of the animosity that flowed between Hamilton and Jefferson. Hamilton considered Jefferson’s political views as “tinctured with fanaticism,” and, as a person, “a contemptible hypocrite.” During the 1796 election, Hamilton wrote a series of some 25 essays under the pseudonym Phocion attacking Jefferson. The most notable of the works, all published in the Gazette, accused Jefferson of having an affair with one of his female slaves.
For his part, Thomas Jefferson lambasted Hamilton and funded James Callender, a sensationalist Republican journalist who frequented the muck to attack Federalists, primarily Hamilton. Callender helped destroy Hamilton’s career and public reputation through false accusations of corruption and the popularization of Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds.
The Callender Affair
In 1792, information came to light that made then-senator (and future president) James Monroe believe Hamilton used his position as Secretary of the Treasury to enrich himself through speculation. Such accusations naturally angered Hamilton, who prided himself on virtuous leadership that sacrificed his own interests for those of the country. That disinterested leadership defined his views of government and explains his eventual support of Jefferson over Burr in the 1800 election.
When Monroe and other Republicans confronted Hamilton, they learned Hamilton dallied with Reynolds, but did not act corruptly or abuse his powers. Monroe and his counterparts understood the distinction between public and private life, realizing that indiscretions in marriage did not equate to corrupt or insidious public action. The investigation ended without leaks.
Some four years later, Callender uncovered the papers related to the Hamilton investigation, perhaps leaked to him by Jefferson, though more likely released by former House clerk John Beckley, a Jefferson ally. He published the documents and further editorialized the affair, lambasting Hamilton’s moral standing and falsely accusing him of corruption.
Hamilton responded in a lengthy pamphlet that he assumed would end the confrontation and restore his stature — after all, the same defense and revelation of facts had ended Monroe’s intrigue. Unfortunately, the pamphlet, in which Hamilton admitted the sordid details of his affair but denied all allegations of corruption, reached a mass audience and that audience assumed Hamilton’s moral indiscretions exposed a rotten character. Callender’s efforts, funded by Jefferson, thoroughly disgraced Hamilton.
And yet, when it came to the tied 1800 election, Hamilton put his long-standing rivalry and antipathy towards Jefferson behind him and fervently wrote Federalist congressman urging them to make Jefferson, not Burr, president.
Hamilton worried that the country would suffer, that the government would be subverted or otherwise harmed, by “an unprincipled man [who] would exploit public passion.” He warned of a latter-day Catiline (a constant fear of Hamilton’s), the Roman senator who led a populist uprising against the Republic. Burr’s populism — he was the first (vice) presidential candidate to canvass for office and helped establish the first political machine in New York — and ambition made him such a man.
Federalists believed that Burr, who held few core principles and profited from the Hamiltonian economic system, would maintain the Federalist program. But Hamilton, who did so much to consolidate government and design the Federalist programs, willingly sacrificed their rollback for character in the presidency. “Great Ambition unchecked by principle…is an unruly Tyrant,” he wrote.
“As to Burr there is nothing in his favour. His private character is not defended by his most partial friends. He is bankrupt beyond redemption except by the plunder of his country. His public principles have no other spring or aim than his own aggrandisement per fas et nefas. If he can, he will certainly disturb our institutions to secure to himself permanent power and with it wealth.”
The Lesser of Two Evils
Jefferson, on the other hand, had greater ability than Burr and was not “zealot enough to do anything in pursuance of his principles which will contravene his popularity, or his interest. He is as likely as any man I know to temporize — to calculate what will be likely to promote his own reputation and advantage; and the probable result of such a temper is the preservation of systems, though originally opposed, which being once established, could not be overturned without danger to the person who did it. . . . Add to this that there is no fair reason to suppose him capable of being corrupted, which is a security that he will not go beyond certain limits.”
“He is of a temper to undertake the most hazardous enterprises because he is sanguine enough to think nothing impracticable, and of an ambition which will be content with nothing less than permanent power in his own hands. The maintenance of the existing institutions will not suit him, because under them his power will be too narrow & too precarious; yet the innovations he may attempt will not offer the substitute of a system durable & safe, calculated to give lasting prosperity, & to unite liberty with strength. It will be the system of the day, sufficient to serve his own turn, & not looking beyond himself.”
“The truth,” Hamilton wrote, “is that under forms of Government like ours, too much is practicable to men who will without scruple avail themselves of the bad passions of human nature.”
Hamilton put his hatred towards Jefferson and concerns over the longevity of his system to support a candidate with character fit to be president, eschewing his party in the process. He recognized the dangers posed by a self-serving individual without ideology of which to speak and no clear attachment to the constitutional system.
Obviously, Trump is not fit for office. He promotes falsehoods, lies to the American people, and blunders about without a clear understanding of policy, domestic and foreign. About 1/3 of his presidency is spent on properties he owns, mingling with donors and lobbyists who pay companies in which he maintains a financial stake hundreds of thousands a year simply to have access to the president. The Founders never wanted such a businessman to be president because that individual would have innumerable conflicts of interest and act on in a self-serving manner; the fears Hamilton had of Burr come true in Trump.
Our institutions do constrain him, and that’s a testament to the efforts of Hamilton and other Founding Fathers to create precedents of separated power and checks and balances, not risking the early republic for personal or factional interests, but instead recognizing the gravity of their decisions. Precedents can be overturned and the normalization of an authoritarian president coupled with weak congressional opposition does not bode well for the country going forward.
Hamilton acted for the country, not for himself. He worked ceaselessly to protect the country from the dangers of an ambitious and self-serving character. Republicans need to learn from Hamilton’s actions and recognize that our country would be best served by abandoning Donald Trump.
For more on election of 1800 and the histories of Hamilton and Jefferson, checkout Gordon S. Wood’s “Empire of Liberty.” Click the image to buy.
Defense of the Electoral College centers on its bias towards small states — to its supporters (of whom I do consider myself one), the Electoral College protects the liberty of small states from the tyranny of an assumed collusion of their larger counterparts.
This argument comes straight from the constitutional convention debate over the president’s election, but in neither time did the argument actually hold merit. Coalitions and divisions between states arose from interests related to economics, not size. Small states resisting population-based representation simply wanted to maintain their power by creating a union with legitimacy drawn from the states, treated as equals, rather than the people.
The Constitutional Convention
At various points in the constitutional convention, small states threatened to leave the proceedings if the foresaw their power in the new government decline. These threats almost came to a head during the debate over Senate representation. Nationalists such as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton pushed — and the convention initially accepted — a Senate apportionment scheme that allotted members on the basis of a state’s population.
Angered, small states ranted about their looming decline in power and forcefully argued for representing the states equally in the Senate. The Connecticut Compromise did just that, with the House of Representatives being apportioned based on state population. Divisions on that vote largely followed state sizes.
Similar debates erupted over the method by which the president should be selected. Those from large states tended to favor either direct popular election of the president or the indirect election of president with electors apportioned based on state population.
Again, small states took issue with the proposals, presenting a plethora of arguments that ranged from alleging that large states would collude to control the presidency or the likelihood of individuals within states voting for a “favorite-son” candidate, thus preventing any one candidate from earning a majority of the votes and throwing the election to a large-state dominated legislature (the tie-breaking method in many early plans for presidential election and the final one adopted).
But these fears had no basis in reality, as should have been immediately clear to all present at the convention. Small-state delegates had a cynical desire to maintain their state’s power and so naturally resisted any effort that would bring their residents back to status of united equality. Large-state collusion would never materialize because they had different material interests.
Of the five-largest states at the convention — Virginia, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New York, and North Carolina, in that order — no natural allegiance could emerge. MA and NY naturally had mercantile interests. Boston and the fast-growing New York City bound the two states in favor a strong state with an eye towards economic development (and later embraced the Hamiltonian financial system).
VA and NC had few commercial interests and no large cities to become international ports. They had an interest in preserving slavery and, later, resisting an expansive federal government that helped “stockjobbers” and other “speculators.”
PA, with the nation’s largest city and its capital, had split interests: Naturally, Philadelphians would align with those in MA and NY, but the western frontiersfolk of PA cared little for commercial emphasis and policy geared towards presumed speculators. They wanted a government that protected from Native American raids and which did not align closely with the British.
As party splits emerged, western PA became Republicans while Philadelphia remained in the Federalist camp. It should have been obvious that the different interests between (and within) these states based on the vastly different nature of their economies would have prevented any collusion.
Coalitions of Region, Not Size
Unsurprisingly, no large-small state divisions emerged; geographic differences largely defined the nascent parties. In 1796, the first competitive election, location, not state size, explained support for Federalist John Adams or Republican Thomas Jefferson. Northeastern states of all sizes supported Adams whereas southern states of all sizes chose Jefferson. Of the five largest states, only NY and MA voted for Adams. PA, VA, and NC went for Jefferson. Of the five smallest states (Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, Rhode Island, and Vermont), 3 went for Adams and 2 for Jefferson. The hotly contested election of 1800 saw 4 of the largest states and 3 of the smallest states go for Jefferson. Clearly, no alliances on the basis of state size formed.
A Nation of States and Unequal People
In the end, the cynical actions of small-state delegates forever changed the republic by creating a natural inequality on the basis of geography. Those living in large states find their Senate votes worth fractions of those in small states — this also holds true for the Electoral College, though the disparity is less pronounced. Small-state delegates pushed a union wherein legitimacy came from the states, thus demanding their equal status in government. Nationalists envisioned a government with legitimacy, or power, coming from the people, and so urged representation to follow the population, not be bound by the amorphous and rather arbitrary state lines.
The huge consequences related to this decision gave small-states the power they craved, but it created a union with representation determined by arguments based on false premises.
 New York City, at that time, had not yet developed into a central commercial port and New York did not immediately embrace the Constitution. NY and MA did not initially ahve the same interests as NY had a frontier that bordered with Native Americans and British Canada. MA had no frontier of which to speak.
For more on the early republic, read Gordon S. Wood’s “The Empire of Liberty,” which you can purchase by clicking on the image below.
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The rest fall in between with 13 percent knowing two branches and 27 percent knowing one branch. For those versed in math – and I’m guessing that’s not many Americans given that math is more difficult than simply memorizing “executive, legislative, and judicial” – 60 percent of the country cannot name more than one branch of government.
I imagine the most-well known branch is the executive as Americans have increasingly been infatuated with the singular head of state and government, lusting for ceaseless news coverage about him (someday her!) and spending hours commenting on even the most trivial of presidential activities (eg, President Obama propping his feet on the Resolute Desk or when Obama happened to order Dijon mustard).
Ever since Franklin Roosevelt asserted executive primacy and Congress more or less acquiesced – the Senate put up a strong fight, but only because Roosevelt and his successor, Harry Truman, sought to (gasp) promote racial equality – the (imperial) presidency has become the image of American government.
So people equate the executive with government and forget the other branches exist, especially when a divided Congress or a split between partisan control of the legislative and executive branches leads to governing through executive order. That trend’s been evident since 2011.
As many people cannot name a single branch as in 2011, but 12 percent fewer can name all three branches (and 11 percent more can only name one). I’d guess people slide down knowledge levels, devolving from knowing three to knowing two to knowing one – and then remembering that one…maybe.
Such apathy and ignorance, of course, does not bode well. We can’t expect voters to make informed decisions about complex issues if they don’t understand how the government works. Associating the government with one office, and so one individual, makes Americans susceptible to authoritarian appeals because any and all autocrats would pledge to do get things done (you know, the “I alone can fix it” attitude). They rebel against inaction and complication and turn towards simplicity and impossible promises. And then those inevitable fail because for all the promises of immediate, unilateral action, voter ignorance doesn’t erase the other two branches. But it does threaten their continued legitimacy and, at worst, independence.
So, Americans, do the country a favor. Learn the branches of our government. It’s really not that hard.
Our History Demands Better than Kid Rock for Senate
Believing that the Kid Rock for Senate shadow campaign should be successful – believing that Kid Rock has a place in the Senate – shows nothing but contempt for the Founding Fathers. Those who created the Senate envisioned a prestigious chamber dominated by political and social elites – those versed in policy, eloquent in speech, and able to create a deliberative chamber removed from the tempests of public will. The Senate would inspire awe; the country’s finest would fill its ranks and act as true patricians debating on behalf of the states and the country, controlling foreign policy, checking the easily-swayed House of Representatives, and preventing the president from acquiring undue power.
The Senate has since fallen from its glory. Corrupt actors have mangled the Senate’s image through demagoguery, process destruction, and using the Senate as a post-Reconstruction and Civil Rights Era tool to maintain systemic white supremacy, especially in the South. These disgraces, though largely a thing of the past, tarnished the chamber’s image, and rightfully so.
Today’s senators have done little to restore the body to its former glory. Senators act as puppets of their president. Voters, too, bear a lion’s share of the blame: They fail to treat the Senate with the seriousness it deserves, which leads to the election of eggheads and process destruction (Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has abused the Senate’s long-standing process during his tenure and has faced no backlash from those charged with holding him accountable).
Voters fail to understand the purpose of the Senate (and, for that matter, the presidency). Political incursions by know-nothing hobbyists have devalued elected offices and encouraged voters to treat elections as sports and games, not serious matters with long-lasting repercussions (see: Donald Trump’s election). Such hobbyism among those seeking prestige, power, and profit should be restrained by voters, but instead voters, not taking the Senate seriously, flirt with ludicrous candidates.
Michigan voters exemplify just that. Kid Rock, profane and ungifted musician who knows nothing about politics, let alone public policy – a hobbyist looking for money whose political ramblings should never be taken seriously – has teased a possible Senate run and already voters have rallied behind the blowhard. A Trafalgar Group poll found him leading a hypothetical matchup with incumbent Debbie Stabeow by 3 points (49-46). Kid Rock has no campaign, no discernible policies, and no reason to run for office. He’s the antithesis of our Founders’ vision for the Senate.
So why do people lust for the idea of Senator Rock? Because in their delusions of populist supremacy – in the grips of the death of expertise – voters think perceived elites should be scorned while ignorant fools (that is, people who sound like the average voter) supported and touted as the American political ideal. But that’s idiotic. We have elites for a reason. Politics is not easy – nor should it be. Our country needs public servants committed to the Constitution, to fighting for their constituents and the country as a whole, and to serving selflessly. We need senators that fit the elitist chamber purposefully created by the Founding Fathers.
Republican officeholders and party leaders must also be ravaged for their role in promoting pathetic political hobbyism and degrading our once-valued and estimable institutions. Worthless Vichy Republicans fell in line behind Donald Trump, a true demagogue, bigot, and obvious threat to liberal democracy and our existing democratic institutions. That didn’t stop them. Rick Perry, who called Trump a “cancer on conservatism,” now serves in Trump’s cabinet.
Anyone who’s studied our history and cares about our institutions would be embarrassed to support Kid Rock for Senate. And yet here we are, awaiting the decision of a fool, one that could see a further tragic American political development and a new low point in the Senate’s fall from grace.
Donald Trump has proved time and time again that he’s no fan of the separation of powers. He sees the presidency as an authoritarian figure, one who wields all of the nation’s power and who through unilateral action can shape policy and make decisions with immediate impact. These delusional visions have of course met with reality. Our Constitution divides power among three branches, with the legislative first of the equal. Trump’s found himself and his goals blocked or slowed by Congress. And he’s no fan of that.
At various points in his presidency, Trump has sought to rebalance governing power by exerting his authority over members of Congress. This stems from his campaign rhetoric, a central of theme of which held that he alone could fix the nation’s problems. Those words had no room for Congress to act; in fact, Trump seemed to entirely forget the institution, figuring that, if elected, he would be the one true sovereign. Now, as the executive, he’s tried to subvert a coequal branch by continually threatening lawmakers who dare oppose his agenda or stand up to him.
Most recently, after signing into law sanctions against Russia stemming from the country’s interference in our election – a fact which Trump continues to deny – Trump continued his frightening assault on the separation of powers, writing “I built a truly great company worth many billions of dollars. That is a big part of the reason I was elected. As President, I can make far better deals with foreign countries than Congress.”
First of all, Trump greatly overstates his deal making ability. His riches, contrary to what he says, stem from inheritance. In fact, Trump is multiple billions of dollars poorer than he would be had he passively invested his inheritance rather than trying to play businessman. Trump’s declared bankruptcy numerous times and nearly ran a casino into the ground (his father bailed him out by illegally infusing the casino with $3,000,000 in chips to circumvent lending regulations). Not to mention other failed ventures, such as Trump Steak, Trump Airlines, Trump Magazine, Trump Water, and Trump Vodka. Or the times he’s been sued for stiffing contractors. No, Trump is not a great dealmaker.
Trump’s continued fabrication about his deal making prowess, however, is not the worrying part of his statement. The second sentence, in which he touts his unilateral ability to make better deals than all of Congress, fundamentally attacks the separation of powers and seeks to delegitimize Congress, its ability, and its lawmaking authority.
The Founding Fathers gave Congress, especially the Senate, broad authority over legislative affairs, including foreign policy (there’s a reason the president must seek senatorial ratification for treaties). Congress has an explicit prerogative to regulate foreign commerce, a central component of foreign policy. Yet Trump’s words undermine the separation of powers by implying that he alone should be charged with foreign affairs and Congress should either cede to him all authority in that front or simply rubber-stamp all of his decisions. The words reek of contempt for Congress. He yearns for unilateral authority unchecked and unquestioned by another governing branch. In other words, he wants – and feels entitled to – a fundamental overhaul of the separation of powers simply because of his self-assumed greatness.
Trump’s statement also seeks to delegitimize Congress by implying the body is incompetent when it comes to foreign affairs – and its incompetence means America is worse off than had Congress simply sat back and allowed Trump to work his magic. This implication serves only to undermine any actions taken by Congress by leading people to immediately doubt any congressional creation, especially when it comes to foreign relations. Why should I trust Congress when the president himself has said the body is ineffectual when it comes to making deals? Why not just let Trump make deals and pass legislation? Why bother with Congress at all?
Lastly, Congress worked in a bipartisan and nearly unanimous fashion to craft these Russian sanctions, yet Trump nonetheless attacked the reason, ability, and effect of Congress’s work. Rarely do all members of Congress come together for something as important as the Russia sanctions – if the president claims that 99 percent of Congress can’t work together to do something as well as he could alone, how bad must be the laws passed by a bare majority? It implies that the bipartisan work of Congress cannot ever match the abilities of the president himself, a rather dictatorial sentiment. Trump’s saying that Congress, working in near unanimity to fulfill its explicit constitution duties, should not be making laws because the deals struck are subpar, especially when compared to what he could do. And that’s dangerous because it no longer assumes Congress should proactively perform its fundamental duties; rather, Congress should wait for the president to act and only follow the whims of the enlightened, dear leader.
This rhetoric should not be tolerated by any lawmaker who loves the Constitution. Attacks on Congress’s legitimacy and authority to carry out its constitution prerogatives should never be made by the president and never accepted by members of Congress. Representatives and senators should band together to unanimously pass a joint resolution stating the legislative branch’s authority to pass laws pertaining to foreign relations and issue a stern warning to the president: Undermine Congress at your own peril; your support is fleeting, the Constitution is forever.