When our Founders met in Philadelphia to amend the Articles of Confederation, which ended up drafting the Constitution, much time was spent on the Executive branch of government- their powers, checks on those powers, what to call them etc.. The Federalist Papers set out to allay the fears that a strong executive would not be like a king. In these papers, and in notes from the Constitutional convention, we sort of know what they were looking for in a President. Specifically, they set the age at 35 and that they be a citizen of the United States. That age was chosen under the assumption that by age 35 any potential President would have the necessary set of skills to carry out the duties of the office.
From these historical sources, it appears that they were looking for proficiency in seven broad areas. And they likely envisioned a man like George Washington- a national hero- being the first President. To his credit, Washington answered the call and started a tradition of a self-imposed two-term limit.
These seven broad areas were polity, trustworthiness, knowledge, ideology, national security, avoidance of factional rivalries, and unity. Although very few Presidents or candidates have lived up to these lofty ideals 100% all the time, Donald Trump blatantly violates each and every one of them.
In the area of polity, they envisioned someone who exhibited personal restraint and a certain degree of humility. Even if they were impetuous or lacked humility, candidates and presidents would at least put up a facade of these traits. To be sure, Trump did not invent dirty politics and rumor-mongering against opponents. But, he has taken it to new levels.
We can point the finger of blame at various individuals and institutions of late for the state of affairs, but something has changed in the definition of acceptable behaviors that we expect from our leaders. The criticism against Howard Dean recently for his insinuation that Trump “snorted coke” before the first debate rings hollow when Trump himself climbed in the gutter and attacked the looks, hair and height of his primary opponents.
The level of finger-pointing and the evisceration of opponents has increased as the level of civil discourse has decreased. To a great degree, the anonymity of social media is the biggest driver in this area.
As for trustworthiness, we are this year confronted with two candidates equally unqualified in this area. This is a sad commentary on the nominating process, but that process can be reformed after the fact. It does not change the reality this year. Leaving aside Clinton’s shortfall in this area, one would think the opposing party would choose a more trustworthy nominee.
Given the litany of Trump’s lies in many areas, any other potential candidate would have been dispatched by now. What sets this year apart is is not only the number and qualities of lies, but the fact that Trump’s followers actually believe or rationalize the lies. Primary voters knew he lied, but he was “their liar” and he was an “honest liar.” Words spoken in the heat of political discourse don’t matter any more; it is all style over substance.
Our Founders feared misinformed and stupid voters making bad choices. They tried to establish safeguards against it be it qualifications to vote or a buffer system called the Electoral College. Unfortunately, 2016 is proving those safeguards failed.
When they established the age of 35 to be President, they assumed that a person would possess enough knowledge to handle the duties of President. Donald Trump is perhaps the least knowledgeable and policy-ignorant candidate for a major party candidacy ever. The list of failures in this area is too long to list here. Suffice to say, Ben Carson- who led in the primary polls at one point and was certainly lacking in knowledge in certain areas- actually looked like a member of MENSA compared to Trump.
What sets Trump apart is that not only does he lack knowledge of many issues, there is no guiding principle behind him. It is what allows Trump to assert that he has no specifics other than, “Trust me…I’ll fix it.” What is even worse is that he gets away with it. No one expects a candidate to be an expert in all areas all the time, but a certain minimal level of knowledge is lacking here.
One would have thought that party ideology would have been a check on Trump, but it wasn’t. In effect, a plurality of primary voters were holding out contempt for and rejecting the ideals of the GOP since Reagan. The only ideology that exists for Trump is that of populism. His supporters are like those of Grover Cleveland who did not like his policies, but accepted him for the enemies he made. Lacking any principle or guiding ideology, a President Trump will take the worst excesses of the Obama administration’s use of executive power to new heights.
One of the areas where the Executive was given great powers was in the area of national security. Other than negotiating business deals involving real estate, Trump has no expertise in this area and it shows in his rants. He, after all, gets his advice from television shows by his own admission. Along the way, if there is any foreign policy coherence in his rants, it is that he would demolish long-held alliances and abandon security arrangements thus leaving the world at the mercy of nefarious predators. He rightfully blames Obama and Clinton for leaving a void in the Middle East which allowed the rise of ISIS, but then seems to suggest he would do the same in Europe by his tirades against NATO.
Perhaps the only thing consistent and predictable about a Trump foreign policy is it’s inconsistency and unpredictability. He has already embarrassed the Republican Party; we don’t need him embarrassing the United States.
One of the biggest fears of our Founders was the rise of factions- not only geographical but ideologically. All candidates obviously appeal to certain factions to some degree all the time, but Trump’s embrace of factions is more sinister. Not since George Wallace has a candidate more greatly appealed to white male identity to further their political rise. But it does not stop there. When 67% of women dislike you, the problem is not messaging or women; the problem is you. But, Trump sees and hears the echo chamber of the adoring crowd in front of him, not the reality of the general electorate.
Trump has become the caricature of what the Democratic Party and the Left has accused the GOP of being for years: the party of “rich old white men.” They don’t hold him out as the aberration he is, but as “your typical Republican.” As a result, he has damaged the Republican Party.
This is the danger Hamilton and Madison realized long ago. They sought to avoid the formation of factions, but if there were to be factions, then the extremes would be held to the fringes and scorned. With Trump, they broke through to the mainstream.
Finally, a President was to be someone who united the country, not divided it. But today, negative partisanship is used to justify voting for Trump. It is not what your candidate offers; it is what the other candidate is. We hear these sentiments echoed in the false assertions that this is “binary choice,” that a vote for anyone other than Trump is a vote for Clinton, or that “he is the lesser of two evils.”
In fact, it is not a “lesser of two evils” scenario. Instead, this is “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario. Hence, the question may very well boil down to who, in the aftermath, has the greatest potential to unify the factions for the common good. Given Trump’s performance to date, there is not much hope here.
Trump not only lacks knowledge in so many policy areas besides his “Build a wall and make them pay” rhetoric, but he is thin-skinned and reacts with a vengeance. He is anything but conciliatory. That is not the Trump brand and never was and never will be. He once said he has never asked God for forgiveness because, in Trump’s mind, he’s never done anything requiring God’s forgiveness. To Trump, screwing people out of contracts is “doing business.” To Trump, bankruptcy is “taking advantage of the laws.” To Trump, a fraudulent “university” is a “great thing that helped thousands of people.” To Trump, not paying taxes is justified because “they’d squander it anyway.” And the list goes on.
If this truly was a binary choice, then that choice would be obvious despite the obvious flaws in the opposition. But a vote for either Trump or Clinton would be a gross betrayal of our Founding father’s aspirations and principles. As one who has great respect for our Constitution and our Founders and this country, I refuse to betray what was started in 1787.