Our constitutional system is facing its most serious threat since the American Civil War. The expectations of checks and balances and representative democracy are being jeopardized by three factors, any one of which could destabilize the system and in combination should make us very worried.
First, we have in Donald Trump a president who defies traditional description despite repeated efforts to apply a label to him. He has been called a narcissist, a bully, thin-skinned, stunningly uniformed and appallingly lacking curiosity. None of those words go nearly far enough nor do they adequately express the danger that he poses to our system of government and our most cherished values. As the positive responses to his address to Congress last week demonstrate, we desperately want to see him as within some broad definition of “normal.” Yet he once again blew up those hopes with his weekend tweets.
Some people point to Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump as possibly able to keep Trump’s behavior in an acceptable range. The Founders never anticipated a need for a full-time baby sitter. Moreover, even their efforts haven’t had much impact. We look for adults in his administration and hope that the generals will keep him in line. Relying on retired military leaders to provide guidance is a thin reed which doesn’t look very promising at this point in his presidency.
We need to stop dancing around the real issue. Donald Trump is unstable, dangerously unpredictable, erratic and unfit for the office he holds. He is a poster child for the provisions of the 25th Amendment except that Vice President Mike Pence and the members of the Cabinet show no signs of the courage or wisdom needed to act on what is so plainly in front of them.
My concern is not about policy or ideology. I disagree with almost every position that Pence holds but still believe that he operates within the boundaries of normal. Trump does not. I hate seeing the nation’s environmental efforts gutted and public education undermined by an emphasis on vouchers, but my worries about the dangers posed by Trump go way beyond those specific policies. In his insatiable need for power, recognition and submission, he threatens the very foundations of our political system.
Some have suggested that the “mad man” theory of foreign relations–be unpredictable to your adversaries in the way that Richard Nixon was during his presidency–is a viable approach. In an age of both thermonuclear weapons and terrorist organizations, there’s no evidence that a mad man in the Oval Office constitutes an effective deterrent. Moreover, how do you justify an erratic president in terms of domestic policy in a representative democracy?
Trump is truly an aberration, a president who exceeds the worst fears of the Founders. To be sure, they were worried about too much power being held by anyone and created a system that was intended to put limits on excesses. The problem we face is that the mechanisms to make checks and balances work have been undercut by two modern trends.
As Lin Manuel Miranda pointed out in “Hamilton,” George Washington in his Farewell Address offered some significant advice to future generations. Specifically, he warned about the dangers of “factions,” a term he used to refer to the incipient development of political parties. Political Scientists in modern times have often described American political parties as a stabilizing influence, but that assessment seems increasingly out of date.
Instead, contemporary political parties aren’t unifying or bridging gaps in our country; they are hardening the divisions. While you can legitimately criticize the shortcomings of both parties, the evidence is quite clear that Republicans have been the more intransigent, less willing to compromise party. (See for example, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, “The Broken Branch.”)
As a result, Republicans who control both houses of Congress have shown no willingness to stand up to or criticize Trump’s erratic behavior. Instead, they look the other way, pretend that nothing strange is going on, and push their ideological agenda in the hope that Trump will be too busy with his own obsessions to care what they are doing.
Is there any chance that some Republicans will eventually put “country ahead of party”? Mr. Trump has already shown that he is basically unhinged and that he is not going to become more presidential. In fact, the pressures of the office and the disappointments that are inherent in the system are likely to make his behavior even more erratic.
His outlandish charge, without any supporting evidence, that Barack Obama had Trump Tower wiretapped during the election is but the most recent example of his wandering mind. The more he gets away with flaunting laws and conventions, the harder it will be for other institutions to rein him in. If Congress doesn’t exercise its authority as an independent branch of the Federal Government, the risks of authoritarianism will continue to increase.
Another obstacle to checking the mad man in the Oval Office is the sharp divisions among the public. It’s not so much that people hold different points of view as that they see the world from different prisms. Rather than being open to new information that might modify opinions, we are a country increasingly in search only of “facts” that reinforce what we already believe.
The observation that you are entitled to your own opinion but not to your own facts is apparently no longer operative. Despite years of evidence widely available, more than 50% of Republicans continue to believe that former president Obama is a Muslim born in Kenya. With alternative facts and charges of fake news thrown around with abandon, there’s less and less common ground for political discussion.
In this environment, we are already seeing the Trump Administration attempting to delegitimize the mainstream press and to push assertions for which there is no evidence. Even if Trump fails to accomplish the things he promised his supporters during the campaign, many of them may view his administration as a success based solely on what they see and read on Fox News, Breitbart and similar sources.
The bottom line is that our constitutional system doesn’t automatically check the president or guarantee that our rights are protected. Two of the mechanisms that have historically played a key role–political parties and an informed public–are under siege.
That reality places an even greater burden on the institution that Thomas Jefferson saw as the key to preserving liberty, a free press. There have been of late some encouraging signs, but the struggle is going to be difficult and often ugly. At this point, however, it may be all we have.