As Benjamin Franklyn was leaving Independence Hall on the final day of the Constitutional Convention, the story goes, a woman asked him, ‘Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” He is said to have replied without hesitation, “A republic, if you can keep it.”*
A Skeptical Founder
Scholars tend to focus on the word “republic” in Franklyn’s answer and often note that Franklyn did not call the new government a democracy. The delegates to the Constitutional Convention limited the role of the people, not least by vesting the power to make and execute the laws in elected representatives. And even then, only propertied white males were allowed to vote.
Even so, Franklyn expressed doubts about the survivability of the system. Why? The answer, I believe, lies in the inherently fragile nature of any system of government based on popular consent.
An Impeached President
It has only happened four times in twenty-three decades and 2020 will be the first time an impeached president has run for re-election. Last October, 16 prominent conservative lawyers asserted, “the acts revealed publicly over the past several weeks are fundamentally incompatible with the president’s oath of office.” In December, the House of Representatives voted two articles of impeachment.
The President grows ever more defiant and belligerent. According to an NPR report,
He has accused Schiff of committing “treason” and trying to take him out by “coup.” Whoever gave information to the whistleblower is “a spy.” While Trump has long called the media “fake news,” he has resurrected the phrase “the corrupt media” to describe reporters covering him now.
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell vows to block impeachment and publicly promises “total coordination” with the White House.
An Embattled Opposition
While the shape-shifting GOP has become a tool of an unprincipled president, far-right populists, and the superrich, a deeply divided Democratic Party continues to be a paradigm of disarray. Comedian Will Rogers joked, “I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.” Now, it’s no joke.
There appears to be no consensus on the kind of core values, policies, and principles capable of unifying and motivating the party’s traditional support base. Given the severe leadership deficit, it is perhaps not surprising that the opposing party—the only real obstacle to Donald Trump’s reelection—has advanced no clear prescription for defeating him.
A Fractured Congress
In the spring of 2019, the headline screamed, “Trump and congressional Democrats are taking Washington gridlock to a whole new level.” It was not a liberal rag doing the screaming; it was the Business Insider. The White House was “stonewalling subpoenas” and various committees were “ramping up investigations”. Other media outlets were making the same sort of dire predictions, of course. Indeed, a gridlocked Congress is hardly even news anymore. It’s politics as usual in Washington.
The purpose of Congress is to make the laws and keep the executive branch honest. By definition, a gridlocked Congress cannot pass laws. When that happens, there’s a powerful incentive for the president to act unilaterally, using executive powers to circumvent the Congress. That happened during Barack Obama’s presidency when McConnell vowed to block everything the White House tried to do. It’s happening again, only this time the Senate is doubling down on behalf of a president obsessed with avoiding accountability as evidenced by his refusal to disclose his tax returns, defiance toward Congress, and disdain for the Constitution.
A Battered Constitution
In October 2019, when the talking heads on Fox News criticized his intention to use one of his resorts for a G-7 summit, President Trump dismissed what he called the “phony emoluments clause”. Who cares what the Constitution says about the matter?
Well, here’s what it actually says (Article 1, Section 9, Paragraph 8): “…no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign state.” No exceptions.
Which raises the question: What other parts of the Constitution does President Trump consider “phony”?
Apparently all of Article II defining the role of the executive branch, the powers of the chief executive, and the limits of presidential powers. No matter. In July 2019, President Trump offered his own interpretation of Article II: “I have the right to do whatever I want.”
But that’s not what Article II says. The language—“…he shall take care that laws are faithfully executed”—is clear. No wiggle room there.
An Imperiled Republic
All of which brings us full circle, back to Ben Franklyn’s admonition. Can we keep this republic if Donald Trump is elected to a second term?