After five months of Donald J. Trump, we find ourselves in the midst of an unscheduled test of the relevancy of the U.S. constitutional power structure.
It could be argued that, much as it is the underlying premise of medical ethics, “do no harm” should be the first requirement of any president. Like so many other controls on presidential power that were assumed to be unnecessary in the early days of the federation, that simple rule was left out of constitutional consideration.
Leaving aside, for the moment, the fact that the U.S. constitution is currently viewed by many originalists as almost equal to the Word of God in its unassailability, there is solid precedent for some pretty radical amendment to that original document. At least half of the country would probably agree that there are enough fundamental issues open to serious debate that a new constitutional convention is more than warranted…not that that is likely to happen anytime soon.
If it were to happen, we might want to reconsider the office of the presidency in its entirety. If Donald Trump has taught most Americans anything it is that entirely too much license is left to the President to do as he pleases. I suppose, at the beginning of the American experiment, the assumption was that any person who would be chosen by majority vote for a limited time in office would essentially be pre-selected for having the highest integrity, or at least feel compelled to perform convincingly as a man of integrity. The three branch model of governance, with its hallowed system of “checks and balances,” was all that was deemed necessary to limit presidential power.
Since then, we’ve seen the creep of partisan gerrymandering and unbridled influence peddling undermine congressional integrity. Threat-enabled executive order powers and highly politicized manipulation of Justice Dept. appointments have completed the trifecta of corruption, delivering us to the dangerous crossroads at which our democracy stands today.
Enter Donald Trump; by majority opinion, the worst president in history. The best we can hope for is that he remains as ineffective as he is irresponsible. We have no tools to control him. As he puts it: he is president and we are not.
He is president, not because the majority of people chose him over all the very smart and capable people in the land, but because flaws in the political system enabled an extremely venal and incapable individual to exploit the worst instincts of a poorly prepared minority electorate. Now he holds absolute control over the most terrifying capabilities in human history.
Say what you will, this is NOT what the framers of the Constitution had in mind.
Why do we even have an all-powerful presidency? I would argue that it is only because our fledgling nation had not fully weaned itself from the paternalistic model of monarchy.
A parliamentary system, such as that of Canada, might make more sense for us.
There still would be one nominal head of state, the Prime Minister, but his power would be sharply limited by the need to maintain not only a majority endorsement from voters, but also consensus within his/her entire party on an ongoing basis. If support from fellow party members dipped significantly, an election would be called and a new party leader chosen.
Whether or not the party maintained control of the government would then be a question for the voters. If a sitting Prime Minister’s own popularity dipped to Trumpian lows, he would be forced to call an election. ‘None of this carte blanche for four years business in the parliamentary model.
Two-hundred-and-forty years of nationhood may sound like a long time but relatively speaking, the U.S. is still in its toddler years. One is tempted to call them its “terrible twos.” Even the president’s cabinet level appointments seem to be more focussed on dismantling the longstanding agencies of public service than effectively administering them.
What we have now is a dangerously dysfunctional governance model that seems increasingly unlikely to withstand the test of time. We’ve already suffered through one terrible civil war and it seems we are revisiting some of the same old grievances. Political tribalism is at a fever pitch, and the political success of Donald Trump guarantees that he won’t be the last venal charlatan to scramble all the way to the top.
As much as many may fear the uncertainty of a Constitutional Convention, it is a reckoning that is long overdue. Happy Fourth of July.