Keeping the American experiment alive

As president, Donald Trump clearly wields huge power. What he does matters, in many cases enormously. But it’s also fair to say that, according to the vision of the Founders, a fixation on Trump – pro or con – is a backward way of addressing America’s challenges.

EVAN VUCCI/AP
PRESIDENT TRUMP SPEAKS WITH REPORTERS IN THE OVAL OFFICE ON DEC. 22, 2017.

I need not tell you that the American populace has a rather conflicted opinion of their chief executive. Just trying to come up with a headline for this week’s cover story by Linda Feldmann was interesting. To an astonishing degree, what defines Donald Trump’s first year as president varies wildly depending on how one views him. And how one views him has become the central fault line in American politics.

That makes this as good a time as any to ask: Is that as it should be?

As president, Mr. Trump clearly wields huge power. What he does matters, in many cases enormously. But it’s also fair to say that, according to the vision of the Founders, a fixation on Trump – pro or con – is a backward way of addressing America’s challenges.

Their America was founded most conspicuously on liberty – the freedom of the individual to flourish, the freedom of the individual from tyranny. And what was the Founders’ great bulwark to defend this ideal? What consumed the majority of the Constitutional Convention’s time? Congress.

The reasoning was simple, but radical. If you truly wanted to protect liberty, empowering a single man or woman was likely to be more of a threat than an answer. So “the people” would write laws, control the spending, and set the nation’s course through Congress. The president would be Congress’s errand boy.

In many ways, however, the presidency has evolved as a convenient end run around the messy complications of lawmaking, particularly in recent years. And that trend matters enormously, too. It speaks to views of power and of political impotence. In a country as diverse and large as the United States, government by the people is bound to be messy and frustrating. But that is its cost.

George Washington was terrified to accept the presidency because he worried “that my countrymen will expect too much from me,” he wrote to a friend.

The Founders recognized that, ultimately, citizens would make or break their creation. After the Constitutional Convention finished, Benjamin Franklin reportedly told those outside that the result was “a republic, if you can keep it.”

Keeping that republic has always been an exercise in patience and trial.

President Lincoln saw the Civil War as a battle to ensure that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

And Washington saw it in his day, when “local prejudices and attachments” imperiled the young republic. “The sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the republican model of government, are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people,” he said in his inaugural address.

America has evolved over the generations, but those changes only reveal new challenges to that model of government. And to focus only on Trump is to risk missing the deeper echoes of his presidency, which speak to a nation perpetually struggling to come to terms with the radical vision that founded it.

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