Donald Trump, Et Al: The Fractious Faction Madison Warned Us About

01/12/2017 01:23 pm ET Updated Jan 12, 2017
James Madison of Virginia, 4th President of the United States, and coauthor of <em>The Federalist Papers</em>
Library of Congress
James Madison of Virginia, 4th President of the United States, and coauthor of The Federalist Papers

In light of Donald Trump’s most recent announcement that he is going to attempt to separate his political duties as president from his private interests as a businessman by shedding or diverting substantial portions of his personal wealth and holdings, a brief look at the Federalist Paper 10, written by James Madison in November of 1787, is certainly in order.

As an ardent admirer of the Federalist Papers, Federalist 10 holds for me some of the most crucial arguments for what eventually became our form of constitutional government—a republic based on apportioned, elected, representation rather than a pure democracy of 324 million disparate voices. Federalist 10 does more than encourage a republican form of government however. In Federalist 10, Madison defines the economic, moral, and ethical quandaries surrounding the question of how a republic should operate despite the presence of factions, or, as they evolved to today’s lexicon: political parties, special interest groups, and citizen-politicians of unbridled wealth and property.

The trick, Madison said in Federalist 10, was to convince those broadly-distributed citizens with specific and local interests—farmers, merchants, tradesmen, fishermen, etc.—to trust a compact leadership composed of privileged men imbued with, perhaps motivated by, their own, very disparate goals (rich guys with land and their own interests to protect) to fairly represent the broad concerns of all the people. Up until that time, the Articles of Confederation had not been successful in uniting the myriad interests within the 13 states under one common roof.

Madison put it this way:

Complaints are everywhere heard from our most considerate and virtuous citizens, equally the friends of public and private faith, and of public and personal liberty, that our governments are too unstable, that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.”

Madison immediately acknowledged that such doubts had merit:

However anxiously we may wish that these complaints had no foundation, the evidence, of known facts will not permit us to deny that they are in some degree true.”

This is an “ah-ha” moment in Federalist 10. It is from this jumping off point that Madison addressed the root cause of concern about the ability of a republican form of government operated by representatives of the people to carry out its duties faithfully despite the influences of factions. Madison is urging his readers to look past the dysfunction of the system (“That damn Congress gets nothing done!”) and examine the motives of the operators and the agendas of the factions that underpin those motives (“Those damn bankers are controlling everything!”). He writes (all boldface type is mine):

“It will be found, indeed, on a candid review of our situation, that some of the distresses under which we labor have been erroneously charged on the operation of our governments; but it will be found, at the same time, that other causes will not alone account for many of our heaviest misfortunes; and, particularly, for that prevailing and increasing distrust of public engagements, and alarm for private rights, which are echoed from one end of the continent to the other. These must be chiefly, if not wholly, effects of the unsteadiness and injustice with which a factious spirit has tainted our public administrations. By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”

“[A]dversed to the rights of other citizens … and aggregate interests of the community” is about as clear a denouement of mischievous factions that Madison could send to the special interests of the time. Through Federalist 10, Madison was alerting the public to the very real possibility that, if left unchecked, special interest factions would try to play one side against another for reasons of avarice and personal emolument (and there’s that word).

It appears to me that Madison’s Federalist 10 warning of the potentials of mischief by certain citizens whose camouflaged interests lie outside the scope of their official, elected, duties, is an eloquently-barbed spear of reproof hurled from the 18th century directly into the heart of the Trump administration and its wealthy cronies two-and-a-half centuries distant. So far, the Trumpian heart continues to beat with an unnatural rhythm, its cold pulse unaffected by the heat of the Federalist flame and civic passions.

Eight years after the publication of the Federalist Papers, and six years after the new Constitution had been ratified by the states, George Washington reflected on the concerns voiced by Madison in Federalist 10. In his farewell address, the aging patriot wrote:

“I shall carry it with me to my grave as a strong incitement to unceasing vows that Heaven may continue to you the choicest tokens of its beneficence; that your union and brotherly affection may be perpetual; that the free constitution, which is the work of your hands, may be sacredly maintained; that its administration in every department may be stamped with wisdom and virtue; that, in fine, the happiness of the people of these states, under the auspices of liberty, may be made complete by so careful a preservation and so prudent a use of this blessing as will acquire to them the glory of recommending it to the applause, the affection, and adoption of every nation which is yet a stranger to it.”

President Washington, we are not yet there, and your earned wisdom—informed in part by the hard lessons of war and executive leadership, and in part by the lessons of Madison, Jay, and Hamilton—seems to be receding from public appreciation as we draw ever closer to a Trump presidency. We need your wisdom and the Federalists’ lessons now more than ever.

To be continued.

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