Founding Fathers 1, populists 0: The US Constitution is taming Trump

“Through all the gloom I can see rays of ravishing light and glory.”
–John Adams to his wife Abigail, July 3, 1776, after Congress voted for Independence

“Good people don’t go into government.”
–Donald Trump

Donald Trump’s first month in office ended with a bizarre, rambling press conference that made incompetence into a type of performance art. Preternaturally gormless, blithely convinced that things have been going well—all evidence to the contrary–the largely oblivious president nevertheless allowed a few cracks to show. He reserved particular scorn for the media and the intelligence agencies, who have been leaking his peccadilloes like a sieve, especially regarding the administration’s all-too-warm ties to Vladimir Putin.

Here Trump–living up to the adage that if you throw enough darts at a wall you are bound to hit something–is onto something big. For his trials and tribulations of the past month, a car crash that has scared and riveted people around the world in equal measure, ironically prove the strength of the American Constitutional system, not its weakness.

It is important to remember that the United States has had one Republic (while the French have had five). The American Founders—Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Madison—were, unlike their French revolutionary cousins (Robespierre, Marat, and Danton) brilliant administrators above all else.

They fashioned a system of shared powers and checks and balances not by accident but as a conscious way to halt potentially dictatorial and ignorant leaders from undoing the country. Serious students of history, the Founders knew that the few examples of representative government up to their time had all been destroyed from within, with chaos leading to tyranny. By dividing power, they consciously made getting things done at the federal level harder, precisely as a way to see off rule by the few.

And this brilliant system has withstood a Civil War, Red Scares, Japanese-American internment, McCarthyism, Vietnam, and Watergate. The lesson of the past month is that the Republic will endure the boisterous know-knothingism of Donald Trump as well.

For over January, the constitutional and bureaucratic obstacles that have left the new president a spluttering caricature have been evident to all. This is precisely what the Founders had in mind. I have found myself involuntarily blessing them over the past fraught days, as their genius has been more than a match for the latest threat to the American Constitutional order.

First, the Federal judiciary (a co-equal branch of government to the presidency) has so far declared the White House’s noxious travel ban to be illegal.

Second, the FBI alerted members of the press—for all its faults the key institution in Jefferson’s mind for preserving representative government—about the odd, clandestine acts of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn in cosying up to the Russian government before the transfer of power. Flynn unceremoniously left his post after a mere 24 days. Congress, in its constitutionally-mandated oversight role, may soon begin hearings to clarify the murky relationship between the Trump campaign team and the Kremlin.

Third, the press caught the President misleading them about the size (and the man does have an obsession with the concept) of his electoral triumph. Saying his victory over the hapless Hillary Clinton was the largest since the days of Ronald Reagan, Trump was corrected by the press, who noted that Presidents Obama, Clinton, and George H.W. Bush all triumphed by much larger margins.

Slightly embarrassed (but not nearly enough), Trump made it clear he did not have time to check these facts, which honestly all of my interns would have known cold. And that, in many ways, is precisely the point. For like it or not, facts matter. This should be especially true for the man who heads the most powerful country in the world. The press, the courts, and the intelligence agencies are doing their jobs—and more, fulfilling the Founders’ hopes for restraints on dangerously uneducated powerful men–in reminding the White House that reality is not optional.

The constraints of the real world have also played their part in moderating Trump’s excesses. Over the past month, he has rowed back from appearing to ditch the One China policy, left the sane and humane Defence Secretary James Mattis to decide about the efficacy of torture (Mattis is opposed), accepted the Iran deal (though promising to be tougher in oversight of it), reaffirmed America’s key links to its Japanese and NATO allies (though rightly demanding they pay their fair share for a change), and left sanctions in place over Russian adventurism in Ukraine and Crimea.

Frankly, while chaotically formulated, this is a clearly distinguishable realist foreign policy that I and much of the American populace can generally get behind. I do not kid myself (as some in the media do) that President Trump arrived at this end state out of some pre-planned, Machiavellian strategy. Rather the real world intruded on his fantasies, and able men like Mattis have steered him in the right direction.

In other words, thank God the American Founders win again.

Published in City AM London February 20, 2017