By David Remnick – The New Yorker.
On September 17, 1787, as Benjamin Franklin was leaving the deliberations of the Constitutional Convention, at Independence Hall, in Philadelphia, a woman called out to him, saying, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?”
“A republic,” Franklin said, “if you can keep it.”
The ratification of the Constitution, H. W. Brands, one of Franklin’s biographers, writes, marked the conclusion of “the revolutionary period in American history” and the climax of Franklin’s improbably long public life. What ratification could not do is guarantee the Constitution’s endurance and health. That is the constant work of citizens, collectively and individually, and Franklin’s weary caution remains essential—particularly now, with the Inauguration of Donald Trump as the forty-fifth President of the United States.
Since Election Night, as the arrow of electoral favor wandered from Hillary Clinton to Trump and stayed there, Americans have been counselled and admonished, by voices sincere and mocking, earnest and derisive, that despite losing the popular ballot by three million votes, despite every extenuating and unnerving circumstance, “Donald Trump is our President now.” “He must be given a chance.” “We are all Americans.” And so on. Under normal circumstances, there is truth in these civic homilies. In a divided country, no side is going to win every election.
But how can these circumstances count within the bounds of normal? Many of those same soothing voices allowed that, sure, Trump had been full of outrageous abandon as a campaigner, he’d say just about anything, you know the Donald; and yet, they argued, the gravity of office would soon occur to him, settle and focus him, make a serious, tolerant man of him. Trump would surround himself with competent, knowledgeable, steady, ethical, decent counsellors; he would plunge into his briefing books and acquire a keener sense of the issues and the world; he would recognize the incompatibility of his business entanglements and the ethical demands of the Presidency; he would concentrate, reach out, embrace, replace the limited language of Twitter with the fuller rhetoric of conciliation, complexity, and selflessness. He would become someone else.
As if wishing would make it so.
Where is the slightest evidence of this magical transformation? Where are all the sober counsellors, the newfound ethics? Where is the competence, the decency, and the humanity? The reality is that the Donald Trump of birtherism, of Mexican “rapists,” of Muslim registries, of “grab them by the pussy,” of bankruptcies and lawsuits and colossal conflicts of interest—this is the same Donald Trump who, with his hand on Lincoln’s Bible, is taking the oath of office, vowing to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.
The reason so many people are having fever dreams and waking up with a knot in the gut is not that they are political crybabies, not that a Republican defeated a Democrat. It’s not that an undifferentiated mass of “coastal élites” is incapable of recognizing that globalization, automation, and deindustrialization have left millions of people in reduced and uncertain circumstances. It is not that they “don’t get it.” It’s that they do.
Since Election Day, Trump has managed to squander good faith and guarded hope with flagrant displays of self-indulgent tweeting, chaotic administration, willful ignorance, and ethical sludge. Setting the tone for his Presidency, he refused, or was unable, to transcend the willful ugliness of his campaign. He goes on continuing to conceal his taxes, the summary of his professional life; he refuses to isolate himself from his businesses in a way that satisfies any known ethical standard; he rants on social media about every seeming offense that catches his eye; he sets off gratuitous diplomatic brushfires everywhere from Beijing to Berlin. (Everywhere, that is, except Moscow.)
His appointees, in the meantime, are too often amateurs in the fields they now pretend to lead or determined opponents of the realms they are intended to safeguard: civil rights, the global environment, public housing.
Each morning, the earnest desire to “give him a chance” dies a little more. This morning, in the Times, we learned that Rick Perry, when he was appointed by Trump to head the Department of Energy, “gladly accepted” and assumed that what the job entailed was “taking on a role as global ambassador for the American oil and gas industry.” It was only later, the paper’s sources said, that he learned that, no, “in fact, if confirmed, he would become the steward of a vast national security complex he knew almost nothing about, caring for the most fearsome weapons on the planet, the United States’ nuclear arsenal.” It might also be recalled that Perry, in a 2012 Presidential debate, called for the department to be abolished, though he could not remember its name. (“Oops,” he said.)
Maybe Perry will read up on nuclear weapons. Maybe Ben Carson will school himself on housing. Maybe Michael Flynn will, as national-security adviser, learn to soothe his volcanic temper and be rid of his penchant for conspiracy theories.
And maybe Scott Pruitt, who filed countless lawsuits against the Environmental Protection Agency before being asked to run it, might come to recognize that fragility is hardly limited to political freedom; it extends to the habitability of the planet. Two days before the Inauguration of a man who has dismissed climate change as a Chinese hoax “in order to make U.S. manufacturing noncompetitive,” scientists announced that the Earth reached its highest temperatures in 2016—the third year in a row. Can the planet wait for Pruitt and Trump to come to their senses?
But, while we go on waiting for such miracles of personal and intellectual evolution, there is every reason to be on guard against a President whose attachment to constitutional norms seems episodic at best. The Presidency has hardly been free of mountebanks and worse. Richard Nixon, though infinitely more prepared for higher office, ran a criminal operation out of the White House. The combined forces of a free and fearless press, public opinion and protest, the courts, and, eventually, Congress brought him to his reckoning. Maybe the day of transformation will come soon and Trump will be nothing more than a bumptious, vulgar, ideologically unpredictable, utterly survivable conservative. But are you betting on it? Did the months of transition promise anything of the kind?
Six decades after the Constitution was ratified, in Philadelphia, Walt Whitman, the author of “Leaves of Grass” and “Democratic Vistas,” issued a warning similar to Franklin’s. “There is no week nor day when tyranny may not enter upon this country, if the people lose their supreme confidence in themselves, and lose their roughness and spirit of defiance,” he wrote, in the Brooklyn Eagle. “Tyranny may always enter, there is no charm, no bar against it—the only bar against it is a large resolute breed of men [and women].”
In other words, the Constitution is not by itself an insuperable barrier against the authoritarian temptation. As Obama pointed out in his final press conference, there is a distinct difference between debates over policy and moments when “core values may be at stake.” A President can at least try to constrain freedoms, issue racist decrees, intimidate, coerce. And, if that becomes the case, it will be on us, resolute citizens, to protect the republic—to demand, as Franklin said, that we keep it.