The signers of the Declaration of Independence were highly imperfect men. Thomas Jefferson and his fellow Southerners were rank hypocrites for declaring “all men are created equal” while owning men, women and children as their slaves. John Adams was sour and disputatious, and later as president would sign the Sedition Act outlawing criticism of the government. John Hancock was accused of amassing his fortune through smuggling. Benjamin Franklin could have been described as kind of a dirty old man.
Yet they laid out a set of principles, later codified in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, that transcended their flaws. At this bizarre moment in our history, it is useful to remember that the ideas and institutions of the American experiment are much more powerful and enduring than the idiosyncrasies of our leaders.
I call this moment bizarre for obvious reasons. As Thomas Paine would write in December 1776: “These are the times that try men’s souls.”
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We have a president who neither understands nor respects the basic norms of American democracy. Make no mistake: Donald Trump is a true aberration. There is no figure like him in U.S. history, for which we should be thankful.
Trump’s inexperience is unique; he is the only president never to have served in government or the military. This weakness is exponentially compounded by his ignorance of both policy and process, his lack of curiosity, his inability to focus and his tremendous insecurity. He refuses to acknowledge his shortcomings, let alone come to terms with them; and he desperately craves the kind of sycophantic adulation that George Washington, a genuine hero, pointedly rejected.
Trump is a #FakeHero. He strings along his supporters with promises he has no idea how to keep. Like many a would-be strongman before him, he defines himself politically by the fights he picks; he erects straw men – faceless “elites,” cable television hosts, Muslims, Mexicans, nonexistent individuals or groups waging an imaginary “war on Christmas” – because authoritarians always need enemies. Yet his ego is a delicate hothouse flower.
The Founders, mindful of their own faults, ultimately designed a system to contain a rogue president. They limited his elective term to four years, gave checking and balancing powers to the legislative and judicial branches, and designed impeachment as a last-ditch remedy. The Trump presidency compels all of us to be mindful of our constitutional duties.
The role of the citizenry – to express approval or disapproval at the ballot box – includes making sure that suffrage is not selectively and unfairly denied by restrictive voter-ID laws or partisan purges of the voter rolls. It is heartening that red states have joined blue in resisting the attempt by Trump’s trumped-up “voter fraud” commission to assemble a national list of voters. Perhaps some future administration could be trusted to make sense of our confusing patchwork of voting systems. This one can’t.
Congress must assert its powers of oversight. One reason the signers of the Declaration gathered in Philadelphia to pledge “our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor” to the cause of independence was that they saw the mingling of royal power and British commercial interests as corrupt. We now have a president whose far-flung business empire – which he has refused to divest, and which his family still operates – presents myriad potential conflicts of interest. Trump has deepened the swamp, not drained it; and Congress has a duty to sort through the muck.
Congress must also let Trump know, in no uncertain terms, that any attempt to impede or disrupt special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election meddling will have the gravest consequences. Trump should be told that firing Mueller would automatically be considered grounds for impeachment.
The justices of the Supreme Court, meanwhile, should study the court’s decisions in United States v. Nixon, which forced Richard Nixon to turn over his White House tapes; and Bush v. Gore, which halted the 2000 vote recount in Florida. Both were instances wherein the court, which rightly shies away from decisions that determine who occupies the presidency, felt it had no choice but to act. It is no stretch to imagine that Trump’s contempt for the Constitution will once again force the court’s hand.
The Fourth of July is no day for despair. It’s a day to remember that our system, though vulnerable to a charlatan like Trump, is robust and resilient. Eventually he will be tossed or voted out. And the star-spangled banner yet will wave.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is email@example.com.