By Fred Benson
Standing at the desk in James Madison’s home library recently, a glance out the window yielded a picture of the same verdant fields of springtime Virginia and the tall peaks of the Shenandoah Mountains that he viewed.
On the desk before me were copies of his drafts of the articles debated during the Constitutional Convention, most impressively his insistence on establishing a strong system of checks and balances among the three branches of government.
Described long ago as a man of “short stature, unattractive features, and questionable social skills,” he ultimately became known as the “Father of the Constitution,” in response to which accolade he wrote after becoming our fourth president, “You give me a credit to which I have no claim. It ought to be regarded as the work of many heads and many hands.”
Madison, Jefferson, Washington and the 52 other Constitutional Convention delegates who met in Philadelphia between May and September 1787 were dedicated to constructing a national government free of tyranny and governed by the rule of law. Having fought a war to escape an environment of consummate executive power, they insisted the overarching principle must be that no one, including a president, would be above the law.
Madison set the tone for this debate by observing, “Wherever the real power in a government lies, there is the danger of oppression. All men having power ought to be distrusted to a certain degree.”
Jefferson further warned, “The tyranny of the legislature is really the danger most to be feared, and will continue to be so for many years to come. The tyranny of the executive power will come in its turn, but at a more distant period.” There is good reason to believe that Jefferson’s concern has been realized.
The Constitutional Society has identified many stark historical examples of what conditions or behavior constituted tyrannical rule: the leader possessed great personal wealth, ignored established decision-making processes, eschewed traditional values, undermined democratic principles, fomented popular unrest, usurped undelegated power, placed undue influence on trials, suppressed investigations, used staged events to excite popular support, built large structures to honor himself, attempted to destroy opposition coming from any point, became unaccountable to the checks and balances of the system and often ended up betraying the people who elected him.
Although it would not be difficult to provide a long list of Donald Trump’s actions and decisions fitting neatly into this historical template of tyranny, Trump will remain in office unless and until he is discovered to have committed a crime serious enough that the House is energized to impeach him, and sufficient numbers of Senate Republicans agree to convict him, a tall order. Odds are great that the 2020 election will be the determining event on when he leaves office.
While Americans wait to see how successful the Democrats will be in unearthing a game-changing presidential crime, constant media coverage of daily Trump follies and foibles sucks the oxygen out of all other meaningful discussions of the many challenges facing our nation today — not tomorrow — today.
Important things are unattended. There’s the record $22 trillion national debt, Afghanistan and Iran wars, North Korean nuclear weapons development, crumbling infrastructure, environmental degradation and flawed immigration law. There’s also inadequate health care coverage, embedded discrimination in our justice system, gun violence and a hollowed-out federal government with almost 40 percent of key leadership positions vacant or filled by temporary appointments. The lack of progress on these issues is a direct result of the ultra-partisan behaviors extant in Washington.
Later in his life Madison wrote, “The eyes of the world being thus on our country, it is put the more on its good behavior, and under the great obligation also, to do justice to the Tree of Liberty by an exhibition of the fine fruits we gather from it.”
Our founders would be disappointed to see that the United States is not living up to the expectations set by them 232 years ago. International respect for our country is severely diminished, discord and violence abound at home, and it seems as though our Great Democratic Experiment has lost its soul. We must get the nation back on track.
If the opportunity to dismiss Donald Trump from his position as president does not present itself beforehand, it is critical that Americans marshal the strength required to defeat him in the 2020 election. All efforts — all efforts — must keep that goal in mind.
Note to readers: this month marks the 16th anniversary of the first publication of Capitol Commentary. I would like to express my appreciation to editors Earl Brechlin and Liz Graves, both of whom have been extremely helpful along the way, and to supporters and critics alike who have been kind enough to provide feedback.
I close with a highly relevant quote from George Washington: “Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.”
Fred Benson lives in Mount Desert and published Capitol Commentary, an independent political newsletter.