In examining the current political turmoils of any given state, it is worthwhile to consider its institutional principles drafted by its founding figures. The intentions of these individuals usually relate to the protection of foundational values and insurance against future political problems. In the United States, these founding values could not be further from the current reality.
After the signing of the Declaration of Independence and effective separation from British colonial control, delegates from the original thirteen colonies attended the 1787 Philadelphia Convention. The convention intended to revise the then functional “constitution” known as the Articles of Confederation. Despite the convention’s original intent of revising the Articles, the delegates decided to re-write the agreement altogether. This document was ratified in 1788 as the United States Constitution.
One of the main agents for U.S. constitutional ratification was the collection of essays known as the Federalist Papers. Written by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison under the pseudonym Publius, the Federalist Papers elaborated on the logic of the new proposed constitution. Branching off the constitutional proposal to unite the thirteen colonies and form a common government, the authors stress the need to direct the territory under a single system of leadership.
However, having experienced the recent aftermath of British colonial control, the authors were also wary of ways that power can become despotic. As such, much of the essays cover ways to balance the need for strong leadership, yet the need to implement mechanisms that prevent this power from being exploited. Since Hamilton, Jay, and Madison were all delegates at the Philadelphia Convention, the meeting which put the desire for a new constitution into motion, the Federalist Papers can arguably be interpreted as a way of understanding the intended goals of the new American governmental structure, both in terms of fostering certain values and protecting the citizenry against the abuse of power.
Examining the United States today, many may doubt that the mechanisms of good government have lived up to their intended purpose of checking elite power, fostering a sense of community, and promoting individual freedom as detailed in the Federalist Papers. Though the structure of government remains in place, its functions have been massively eroded.
Perhaps the most substantial modern threat to these Federalist values is President Donald Trump.
Admittedly, Trump’s ardent, aggressive style of decision-making may represent the strong leadership the authors of the Federalist Papers would have supported. In Federalist no. 70, Alexander Hamilton states that “Energy in the Executive is a leading character of a good government.” Strong leaders are not only necessary to deter foreign powers from compromising state security, but also to represent a threat of punishment for citizens and enforce compliance with the laws. However, Trump’s evasion of, and outright indifference to governmental procedures has eroded the checks and balances that Hamilton, Jay, and Madison viewed as imperative to preventing the abuse of power.
In Federalist no. 51, Hamilton stressed the importance of checks and balances: balancing power between multiple bodies in order to limit the power that each one can hold over the people. The Papers suggest that by giving each department the ability to influence one another, these bodies would have a degree of authority over each other. As such, each body limits the ability of any individual department to make decisions without the consent of the other.
In contrast to the Federalists’ intended moderation of power, Trump has continued to manipulate and even bypass constitutional procedures that enable government bodies to perform these checks and balances. Less than a month after Trump’s inauguration, he declared a national emergency in order to bypass Congress’ refusal to grant him funds for building a wall across the U.S.-Mexico border. The declaration enabled Trump to access $6.1 billion from the U.S. Department of Defense that was previously allocated to military construction and drug use prevention. Perhaps more concerning, Trump recently threatened to re-employ this tactic in an act of war, tweeting Sunday that he intends to bypass Congress in the same manner, should they refuse to declare war against Iran under the War Powers Resolution. By expressing awareness of legal procedures, with a willingness to overrule them, Trump’s actions indicate outright indifference toward legal procedures, the rule of law, and the potential safety of the American citizenry.
In addition to the abuse of power in government, Hamilton also noted in Federalist no. 51 that checks and balances would help prevent larger or more powerful sects of society, such as the majority or the financially privileged, from overpowering more vulnerable groups within the populace. Since terms of office in each body of government would vary, the voting majority would be limited in its ability to overpower the minority. Put differently, this would encourage various perspectives in government from being represented, even if they may be against the views of the majority.
Though there remains a possibility that the legislature and the executive would both reflect the views of the majority, organizing terms of office in this manner renders it unlikely that one particular sect would be able to exercise total control over the other.
Comparing these intentions with the current political climate, Trump seems to be encouraging the opposite. His powerful campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again”, combined with his mockery of racial and religious minorities, the LGBTQ+ community, and the disabled, has provided a platform for other individuals who justify their White Supremacy with rhetoric about the restoration of an alleged Golden Age. The result has aggravated verbal slander, political polarization, and broader systematic discrimination against those not fitting into Trump’s depiction of the ideal American citizen.
Overall, Trump’s presidency has alarmingly undermined both the structural and social goals of the United States Constitution. While Hamilton, Jay, and Madison might support the notion that strong leadership is imperative to protect a political body, they would likely also hold that this is a minor component of a functional government. If leaders can undermine constitutional procedure without repercussion, it conveys a message to future leaders that such manipulation can be recreated and is acceptable. Unless concrete action is taken to reprimand leaders for this type of misconduct, political leaders may continue to cast aside the constitutional values on which their nations were founded.
Edited by Samantha Dagres.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.