When John Adams, the second president of the United States, took office in 1797, he described the Constitution of the new republic as “the result of good heads prompted by good hearts.” Donald Trump, the 45th president, showed this week that he does not feel constrained by that.
Trump believes that the president has absolute power, so that he can force states to lift their lockdowns during the corona crisis. “The authority of the president is total,” he said during his daily news conference on the crisis on Tuesday. While it’s not a surprise coming from him, it is shocking that the president of the leading country of the democratic world demonstrates such ignorance about the origins of the republic and the letter and spirit of the Constitution that he swore to preserve and protect when he took the oath of office.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo immediately replied, “We didn’t have King George Washington, we had President George Washington,” referring to the first president who stepped down after two four-year terms, to emphasize the difference between the young republic and Europe with its absolute monarchs, specifically British King George III, whose tyranny sparked the war for independence.
The Founding Fathers’ fear of the idea of heredity and the concentration of power in public administration ran so deep that Adams openly disapproved of organizations where membership passed from father to son. The Constitution’s provision that the president must be at least 35 years of age stems from the same spirit. Ancestry alone should not be the deciding factor.
Cuomo cautioned that if Trump decided to force states to reopen, he would plunge the country into a constitutional crisis the likes of which has not been seen in decades. Cuomo himself would oppose lifting the lockdown if it endangered public health. With this statement, he positioned himself squarely opposite Trump, who said, “If someone is president, his authority is total. And that’s the way it’s got to be. And the governors know that.” Neither is true.
The Power Lies with the States and the People
The Constitution leaves no doubt that, overall, power lies with the states and the people. The Tenth Amendment, which was added to the original 1787 Constitution after just a few years, reiterates, for extra assurance, that states have delegated their powers to the president. The power of the president is also reined in by the Senate. Just like in our country of the Netherlands, the spirit of the arrangement is the division of power, and thus the end of the absolute power of a king.
It is shocking that in the oldest modern republic, which used cannons to make the world “safe for democracy” in 1917 and 1941, this spirit is now being sidelined. From the onset, Trump has shown himself to be someone who considers the system’s checks and balances, such as independent judges and critical press, to be a nuisance. But he is increasingly behaving like an “egocrat,” who constantly challenges the existing limits of presidential powers, and who rudely deals with resistance. But not only that.
Even worse is that he is ruining democracy as a social model of civilization. He is not the president of all Americans, as it should be; instead, he pits one half of the population against the other. Polarization is used as a strategy of power politics, not as a temporary political means of clarifying positions. Even if he is not reelected, it will be difficult to repair the social damage.
The Great Independence Experiment
Democracy is, by definition, vulnerable, because it allows for differences of opinion and creates space for them. This not only requires institutions, but also unspoken codes such as moderation, courtesy, truthfulness and cooperation. That is not pious talk or political correctness, but the definition of a democratic attitude, which, in extreme cases, means rebelling against egocracy, as the Dutch republicans and American settlers have shown in past centuries. Washington expressed that attitude by stepping down after two terms, out of fatigue, but also to prevent consolidation of power from dominating “the great experiment of independence.”
History shows the importance of often reviled and criticized politics. In good hands, it is a creative force that can produce beautiful things, such as democracy. In the wrong hands, it can do much harm. Adams wrote to one of his sons that if wise and honest men decline public office, others will not.