They were a bunch of old rich white men, half of whom were slave owners, immensely self-interested, and they created the Electoral College, and the ridiculous provision that every state should have two members in the Senate, so that Wyoming (population 700,000) and California (population 35,000,000) have equal representation. Our so-called Founding Fathers, and I don’t care how many catchy tunes there are in Hamilton, they got a hell of a lot of things wrong. Don’t get me started.
But there are some things they got right. In recent weeks I have been thinking a lot about the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. If there is one idea animating both documents, it is an opposition to tyranny. The Declaration of Independence is all about the tyrannies of King George III; taxation without representative, closing legislative bodies, interfering with commerce, sending armies to crush the rebellion—if you have forgotten the particulars, and you want to celebrate the 4th of July a bit early, read it again—all leading to the conclusion that “the history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.”
Well, to cut a long story short, the revolutionaries won, and then they had to figure how to govern without a king, and this led to the writing of the US Constitution in 1787, 11 years after writing the Declaration. Tyranny was once again at the center of their concerns; the tyranny of an all-powerful executive; the tyranny of the states; the tyranny of the upper class, the tyranny of the lower class, tyranny of faction, and they constructed an elaborate system in which the tendency to tyranny in any one part of the government is blocked by others.
Our founding fathers never could have imagined that the American people would be so mind-numbingly asinine (aided by their damn Electoral College) to elect someone as unqualified intellectually and emotionally for the presidency as Donald J. Trump. But they would have recognized him immediately. Donald J. Trump is a tyrant.
Tyrant is an old-fashioned word. For the past century we have had dictators, authoritarians and totalitarians, but not tyrants. I mean, it sounds sort of odd to call Hitler or Stalin tyrants, like a slap on the wrist. But much of political thinking before the 20th century concerned the problem of tyrants. The term dates to ancient Greece. The Tanakh, particularly Samuel and Kings, are filled with stories of good kings and tyrants. When King Rehoboam told the people (I Kings 12:11) that “my father [Solomon] imposed a heavy yoke on you, and I will add to your yoke; my father flogged you with whips, but I will flog you with scorpions” he was being a tyrant, which the OED defines as a “king or ruler who exercises his power in an oppressive, unjust, or cruel manner.” That is Donald Trump. He is not a fascist, or a totalitarian dictator. He is just a little petulant whining brat who always wants to get his own way.
Now, what tyrants do is not necessarily illegal. King George probably had the legal authority to do everything he did to the colonies, which was one reason the Declaration didn’t speak of English law but of the “Laws of Nature.” It was, everyone agrees, perfectly legal for Trump to fire Comey. But it was a violation of a norm; that the head of the FBI needs to maintain as much independence as possible from the executive branch, because the FBI has the main responsibility for investigating the executive branch. And because there was an ongoing investigation of the actions of his campaign, it was an abuse of power.
We do not have a parliamentary system in which there can be a vote of no confidence and bring down the government, unfortunately. But there are ways to block his power, including impeachment, which despite the phrase “high crimes and misdemeanors” in the constitution it does not mean criminal activity, but the abuse of power and tyranny. However, given the Republican majorities in both houses, he is very unlikely to be impeached, though I think he has already committed impeachable offenses.
I think that the most likely scenario is that Trump gets his way. Republicans, with some hemming and hawing, in the end stand firm and support him. The investigation into the Trump campaign’s involvement with Russian hacking peters away, and Trump, with another scandal or two, distracts everyone’s attention. The Democrats stamp their feet, moan, and decry, but it goes nowhere.
But we have the Constitution. And we are undergoing the greatest constitutional crisis since the Civil War. And we will see if the people who wrote the constitution were right, that the American government is structured to prevent tyranny, and defeat its manifestations. But the constitution is only a piece of paper, a blueprint. So protest, prevent, project, raise your voices until they are joined in a deafening roar. The constitutional protections against tyranny, and the constitution itself, means nothing unless people are willing to defend and uphold it. So help me God.