The extraordinary rise of Donald Trump is forcing Americans, whether they like it or not, to consider just what they want a president to be. Mr. Trump certainly isn’t what the nation’s Founders had in mind. George Washington and James Madison aren’t here to offer their opinion on the New York developer and showman. But they can tell us something about the kind of person they thought should lead the republic.
In 1789, the First Congress spent weeks debating what to call the nation’s new chief executive. Vice President John Adams considered “His Most Benign Highness” or at least “His Highness” as the barest acceptable forms of address, although he preferred “His High Mightiness,” and dismissed “President” as fit for nothing more than the leader of “fire companies or a cricket club.” Others proposed that the name “Washington” should itself become a title, like “Caesar” or “Augustus” in ancient Rome, to be bestowed on future presidents.
Fortunately, George Washington, would have none of it. He rejected all grandiose titles as offensive to the leveling American spirit. Although he was a patrician slave owner, and a military man accustomed to command, he was republican to his bones, and regarded Congress, not himself, as the leading organ of government. Underpinning his republicanism was unbreachable self-restraint, modesty, and respect for the dignity of his fellow political men, including those he disagreed with. As far as he was concerned, the humble title of “President” was just fine.
Washington would doubtless be shocked at the openly authoritarian – he would have said “monarchical” – tendencies of the presidential candidate of today’s Republican Party. Perhaps it’s a little unfair to Mr. Trump, but had he been alive in 1789, he would probably have called Washington a wuss and a loser. He almost lost his army at Valley Forge, and he lost more battles than he won, didn’t he? It’s easy to imagine that Mr. Trump would have enthusiastically embraced the most pompous title possible.
Increasingly, it appears that millions of Americans, whether they admit it to themselves or not, no longer want a president at all. They seem to want a leader, who although he may wear a business suit and speak the lingo of a construction site, wields power uninhibited by the niceties of our democratic process or constitutional restraint. In other words, they want a king.
The political soil was tilled for demagogy long before Mr. Trump appeared on the scene. It was cultivated by decades of feral right-wing attacks on the federal government, by the metastasizing culture of celebrity, by media obsessed with horserace campaign coverage and incessant polling, and – perhaps more than anything else – by countless ill-educated citizens lacking real understanding of how government actually works. Cynicism thrives in a vacuum of knowledge. It’s a good bet that few Americans today fully understand what it takes to pass legislation, the relationship between the executive and legislative branches of government, or the need for compromise even on matters of principle in order to make progress. These are facts that any schoolchild could explain until courses in social studies and government began to disappear from schools in the 1960s.
Many Americans seem to think that presidents have the power to wave a magic scepter in order to enact and enforce the promises they make during their campaigns. This applies to many of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s supporters too, who share Mr. Trump’s delusional notion of presidential power, as if merely declaring a “revolution” were the same thing as actually governing in the face of a Congress that might be opposed to his will.
In today’s America, if presidents haven’t done what we want in their first hundred days, we’re all too ready to dismiss them as failures – as if such a breathtakingly short span of time were a valid measure for political accomplishment. This failure seems proof not of the difficulty of governing in a democracy, or of the complexity of the issues involved, but of the president’s own hypocrisy, corruption, incompetence, or moral “betrayal” of the voters. Citizens of Weimar Germany—the republic formed after World War I and the predecessor of Hitler’s Third Reich—would recognize this facile contempt for the messiness of constitutional government, and the desire for a forceful new figure to step in and clean it up.
Democracy is clumsy by nature. Anyone who thinks differently doesn’t understand the government that Washington, Madison, and their 18th century compatriots and his allies bequeathed to us. They deliberately created an obstacle course for legislation that made it difficult for either a demagogic president or a tyrannical faction of Congress to exert too much power on their own. It is precisely this diffusion of power that Mr. Trump would like to undo with his disdain for both political and constitutional restraints, whether applied to the capricious abrogation of trade treaties, the abolition of gun-free zones in schools, or the torture of captured foes.
If we truly want our government to work, we seek principled but pragmatic leaders not zealots, ideologues, or demagogues with imperial delusions, who will further undermine public trust in government. The founders knew that demagogy, in particular, was a recipe for disaster. In this year of Donald Trump, we ought to take their fears seriously.
Madison was more worried about legislative than executive tyranny at a time when the presidency was frail and untried. But we would do well to remember his cautionary words as the November election approaches: “What is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” Mr. Trump, it hardly needs to be said, is no angel.
Fergus M. Bordewich latest book, The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government, was published in February by Simon & Schuster.