American democracy is a curious thing. Unlike many of its Western counterparts, the country’s democratic origins can be traced back to a specific point in history. The Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776 turning the Thirteen Colonies into the United States of America. Because of this, the men who enabled American freedom, and the texts associated with it, have taken on an almost religious significance to its people. Donald Trump would never dare to criticise them (putting them in the most exclusive of groups), but he has them to thank for the constraints on his power.
A painting by John Trumbull depicting the presentation of the Declaration of Independence (source: Wikimedia Commons)
The Founding Fathers of the USA were liberals. This is not meant in a modern American context as those on the left of the political spectrum, but those with a belief in the innate and unalienable freedom of the individual (if you take ‘the individual’ to mean free-born white males, anyway). From this follows a fear of any concentration of political power as a necessary threat to that freedom, enabling the tyranny of a few to freely infringe on the rights of their citizens without any kind of accountability. Washington, Jefferson, Madison and co. were well versed in historical examples of tyranny and the ways in which it could subjugate citizens, from Julius Caesar to their own struggle against King George III. Given the opportunity to design a political system largely from scratch, they sought to make it as difficult as possible for tyranny to thrive.
Trump at a presidential debate in 2016, being overlooked by the Constitution (source: CNN)
In many ways, Trump appears to be the kind of ‘tyrant’ the Founding Fathers feared would one day take power in the country. His authoritarian attempts to police the conduct of individual citizens through, among many other examples, his suggestions that the NFL should be discriminated against in public policy because of its players’ peaceful protests against racial inequality, and his efforts to shut down the publication of a book critical of his government, are fundamentally inconsistent with the Founding Fathers’ belief in allowing individuals to act as they please, short of causing harm to others. Similarly, James Madison’s famed quote that “the means of defence against foreign danger, have always been the instruments of tyranny at home” appears particularly relevant to the Trump ‘travel ban’ in response to the perceived threat of Islamic extremism, infringing on freedom in the name of security.
Why is the NFL getting massive tax breaks while at the same time disrespecting our Anthem, Flag and Country? Change tax law!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 10, 2017
The constitutional system of checks and balances instituted by the Founding Fathers, making the White House, Congress and the Supreme Court independent of one another and able to hold each other accountable, has served its function in preventing Trump from implementing much of the legislation he pledged to. This ensures that the government cannot exceed its proper role just because one man (particularly one with such a tenuous claim of being selected by the people) wills it so. Whether this is in fact the best way to run a country certainly remains a matter for debate, given it often results in political deadlock and favours continuity over change. Yet when Trump sees his travel ban regularly impeded by judicial rulings, or fails to pass various bills through Congress, he really has the founders of his country to blame.