Susan McWilliams Barndt is a regular contributor to The Constitutionalist. She is Chair and Professor in the Politics Department at Pomona College.
All republics need built-in safeguards against would-be tyrants.
President Trump has eroded some of those safeguards in the United States, as many people have said. That’s a worry.
But we should also worry about something else: that President Trump shows us that one of the presumed safeguards against tyranny in America isn’t really there, or isn’t what it used to be.
The moral of the story is: We need to make the Presidency unappealing again.
As Abraham Lincoln said in one of his first famous speeches, there are always going to be people of tyrannical ambition in our midst: people for whom ordinary powers feel insufficient, people who scorn precedents and manners and norms, people who want to recast the world in their own terms, people who want to conquer and destroy and remake. “The history of the world,” Lincoln said, tells us that some people will “naturally seek the gratification of their ruling passion, as others have done so before them.”
Or maybe Abigail Adams was right when she said that “all men would be tyrants if they could.”
In either case: We know there are going to be would-be tyrants around. How do we guard against their ascension to political power?
Most Americans would give, rightly, a checks-and-balances/separation-of-powers/federalism answer. Following James Madison, we assume that our constitutional system pits ambition against ambition. The Constitution engineers it so that even if a would-be tyrant becomes a governor or member of Congress or Supreme Court justice or President, that person’s ambitions run up against the ambitions and interests of other actors and political bodies. Ambition counteracts ambition.
But on top of that, I’d always learned – via Alexis de Tocqueville, mostly – that there’s an even deeper genius to the American constitutional design. That is: Because it’s so obvious to everyone that the checks-and-balances/separation-of-powers/federalist system works to thwart overweening ambition in the ways that it does, the American constitutional order discourages would-be tyrants from seeking power through politics in the first place.
Consider: If you are someone who disdains compromise and teamwork and precedent and oversight, what would you rather be: President of the United States or CEO of a major multinational corporation? Who makes more money? Who has more power to indulge his (or her) every whim? Who has more freedom to act unilaterally?
The system is designed – so the theory goes – that Americans who have grandiose ambitions tend to seek power in private occupations, where there are greater material rewards and fewer constraints on action. Instead of becoming tyrants, they become titans of industry. And we are all better for it.
I’ve taught that theory to my students for years: that the Presidency is designed to look pretty unappealing, especially to people who have authoritarian impulses. But the existence of President Trump defies the theory.
The constitutional framers assumed something that doesn’t seem stupid to assume: that anyone tempted to become President would have, you know, a basic understanding of the job and its limitations.
But that was a naïve assumption. For it seems clear that Donald Trump was not smart enough, or a good enough student of civics, to understand the restrictions on the Presidency in our checks-and-balances/separation-of-powers/federalist system.
Indeed, it’s been apparent for years that Trump has been surprised and frustrated by the limits on his executive power. As he’s come to realize those limits, Trump has commented often that he had powers as a private citizen – to, like, cheat on his taxes – that he has lost in public office.
Had he understood the constraints that he would face as President, would he have run for the position? Maybe and maybe not, but Trump is living proof that the founders were wrong to assume that anyone who sought power in the American constitutional order would understand that order in its most basic terms (or that the American people would insist upon that kind of understanding in choosing their elected officials).
The political theorist Peter Lawler was always good at reminding us scholarly types that we tend to overestimate the power and appeal of scholarliness. It’s easy for us to forget that you don’t need to be scholarly to be successful – and that in fact often it helps not to be scholarly if you want to be successful. Or, as Mark Twain put it: “All you need is ignorance and confidence; then success is sure.”
I think that the framers, in their own scholarly way, could not imagine that in the United States, claiming civic ignorance would ever be a route to claiming civic power. And yet: it is.
It also seems likely that Trump pursued the Presidency not because he really wanted to be President, but because he thought that campaigning would be good for his businesses. In other words, Trump never wanted public office, but he saw campaigning for it as a way to get free media exposure and a fan base that could be converted into customers of Trump, Incorporated.
But even if it isn’t what he wanted in the first place, Trump has made his 2016 win pay off: since becoming President, his businesses have raked in about $2 billion. It is telling that so many of the norm violations that have marked the Trump presidency have been in the service of lining his pockets. And his family have shared in the filthy fortune-making: Ivanka and Jared have made as much as $82 million in a single year while The Donald has occupied the White House.
In other words, Trump is perhaps the most egregious reminder that – in a country where the lines between private money and public power are ever-more blurred – the ambitious and ruthless see public office, correctly, as a way to further their private enrichment.
I find myself wondering, against what I argued just a few paragraphs ago, whether maybe Trump understood the contemporary Presidency all too well. What if the contemporary Presidency isn’t defined mostly by checks-and-balances and the separation of powers, but by the potential for cashing in on the office?
As we sort through the fallout of the Trump presidency, I think we need to be asking a kind of strange question: How do we make the Presidency – and other positions of public office – less appealing? Or, more specifically: How do we make elected positions less appealing to those people who are really out for themselves, contemptuous of the public good, and disdainful of the precedents and limits that are required for a functioning constitutional democracy?
In that old logic of Tocqueville’s, what helps preserve the republic against would-be authoritarians and tyrants (and ordinary charlatans) is a system in which public office simply does not appeal to people who chafe at restrictions, compromise, precedent, and teamwork. The sad fact today seems to be that this old logic no longer applies, at least not in full, and it needs to be given new purchase.
At the very least, we need to find every way possible to loosen the connections between private money and public life. We should consider, among other things, strengthening the Hatch Act, requiring Presidents to disclose their tax returns, and advancing constitutional amendments that would override the corrosive Supreme Court decisions that have allowed private money to corrupt public office: most famously Citizens United (2010), but dating back at least to Buckley v. Valeo(1972). The harder we make it for people to use public office toward private ends, the better our politics will be.
I don’t think we can entirely undo the relationship between private monies and public office, since modern markets and states are creatures of each other. But there is hope for some dialing back of the current situation, in which some of the classic safeguards against tyranny no longer seem to apply. Americans overwhelmingly support limits on political campaign spending, a sign that – even in these divisive times – we all understand, on some level, what makes for a healthy republic.