An Open Letter to the American People on the Dangers of Taking a President at His Word

Posted in: Constitutional Law

Dear Fellow Citizens:

When the Framers of the United States Constitution gathered in Philadelphia, they were dealing with a governing system—the Articles of Confederation—that had failed. There was great unrest across the states as the state governments could not deliver what the people needed. No state government could effectively negotiate with foreign countries over trade or conduct war from a unified front. There was no stable currency. The state legislatures had become vortices of corruption where representatives served powerful individuals without heed of the public good. The governors were comparatively weak and incapable of uniting to make the system functional.

So the Framers traipsed to Philadelphia with a dark cloud on the horizon: there was good reason to believe they might not succeed. Still, they gathered on those steamy summer days, locked themselves inside, and debated what system might just work. There were many ideas on the table, but there was a shared world view: don’t trust anyone who holds power.

As I discussed here, the Framers handed the people the right to choose their elected representatives, but following that moment of power—during the term of representation—they cannot themselves choose public policy. They can, however, question, shame, and judge. To do that they need communication, critical analysis, and a lively, varied press to check the presidents and members of Congress they have empowered.

The Trump Administration has encouraged you to abandon this second part of the relationship. President Trump repeatedly has responded to critics by saying that he “won” the election and, therefore, challenges to him, the legitimacy of the election, or his policies are just sour grapes. He also has taken a panoply of positions that are intended to seduce you into thoughtlessly acquiescing to whatever he spouts on Twitter or whatever message his benighted spokespersons Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway deliver.

The overarching themes have been: don’t trust the press that doesn’t support me; expect me to attack you with whatever power I have if you question me or my policies; I’m the president so I don’t have to produce facts to support what I say; accept the dribbles of information I am willing to validate but don’t expect full disclosure—you don’t really want it even if you say you do; defer to me when I say something is “illegal” whether or not it is; and trust me to make the decisions because I know things that you don’t know.

These are the demands of a man who expects loyalty without challenge simply because he won, and who intends to shut down that second vital part of the relationship with you. He will succeed in neutering your remaining power over him if you blindly accept whatever he says at face value.

According to Trump, he needs to tweet at you, because he doesn’t want his message filtered by the press, or anyone else. That is to say, he does not want someone fact-checking, challenging, or shining a harsh light on him or his motives. Those of you who are inclined to accept what he is telling you as the gospel truth need to understand that you are giving away what he can’t take if you don’t let him: the power to question. Once you give it away, he won’t give it back, and it will be difficult to recapture, because that is how power works. Trump will run with the unilateral authority he believes is his god-given right. Never, ever forget the Framers’ warning: never trust anyone with power.

The good news is that most of you are not swallowing his demand to trust him more than the media. Only 16 percent approve of his Twitter habit, and as he rolls out his trust-me offensive, his overall approval rating continues to drop. There is reason to hope, therefore, that just because Trump demands blind obedience does not mean you—even those of you who voted for him—will fall in line. To the contrary, you are increasingly wielding the power the Framers gave you to look askance at your leaders and to demand they serve the common good and not just themselves. That is the attitude that unites us—regardless of party or politics.

It shouldn’t matter, therefore, what the man in the White House tells us to believe. He should have to produce facts, good policies, and even better results for every American. Our job is not to trust but to test him at each step along the way.