Let’s count the ways in which the Republican Party’s nominee for president, Donald Trump, runs afoul of the expectations of our 17th century Founders. Themselves aristocrats, the Constitution’s architects structured America’s new republican-style government to incorporate all parts of society. A popularly elected president would replace the king, appointed, aristocratic members of the Senate, selected by state legislatures, would provide political stability and members of the House of Representatives, elected by mainly white, better-off male property owners, would reflect the interests of the disenfranchised, marginalized masses.
To work well, the Founders believed this governing structure needed three ingredients: First, elected and appointed players must be drawn from the wise, upper class slice of the population and, until Andrew Jackson’s election in 1828, aristocrats did run the country.
Echoing the Founders, The New York Times recently reported that 50 former senior Republican officials signed a letter claiming Trump , if elected, “would be the most reckless president in American history;” that, “he is unable or unwilling to separate truth from falsehood;” that he “lacks self-control and acts impetuously;” and that he “cannot tolerate personal criticism.”
The second ingredient calls for elected and appointed players to possess a large dose of civic virtue — that is, self-restraint and the ability to place the public interest above selfish, personal interests.
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In “Federalist Paper 55,” published on February 15, 1788, James Madison wondered if the American people would, in fact, develop a sufficient level of civic virtue to make the new government work. He wrote: “Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form.” But, he added, if there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government one might infer that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.
In the June issue of The Atlantic, the psychologist Dan McAdams in an article titled, “The Mind of Donald Trump,” says Trump’s lack of warmth, care for others and compassion is the “real wild card.”
We seldom hear reference to civic virtue these days, but I believe the Founders would readily agree that McAdam’s assessment of Trump adds up to a shortage of civic virtue sufficient to render him unfit for the presidency.
Third, since in the late 1780s the Founders understood widespread participation in the political process to be a form of mob rule, they insisted that the common man must not be given an active part in the operation of the government. American-style republicanism feared that direct involvement of the people in the governing process would only lead to conflict and instability. Once those qualified to vote have cast their ballot for members of the House of Representatives, they were expected to head for the political sidelines until the next election.
How did Trump gain the Republican Party’s nomination for president? Was he the choice of the party’s elite? Did he work his way up the party ladder? Did he gain valuable public experience through extensive prior government service?
Not at all. He simply swept the established Republican primary process with his bombastic call to make America great again. And who fell under his spell? Grass roots registered Republican voters — the very segment of society the Founders feared as fickle and prone to fall for the call of a despot.
For the Founders, grass root party primaries to select a presidential candidate would have been a ridiculous, risky idea. They knew full well how poorly such a process might turn out and how a candidate like Donald Trump might co-opt the process.
Ronald Fraser, Ph.D., a writer in the Buffalo, New York area, is the author of a new book, “America, Democracy & YOU: Where have all the Citizens Gone?” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.