Shackled to the words of their ancestors

Jonathan Freedland wrote a book about the American revolution almost 20 years ago. The timing was not great.

The American revolution, I argued, was our inheritance, a part of our patrimony mislaid across the Atlantic. From a written constitution to a system of radically devolved power to the replacement of monarchy with an elected head of state, it was time for us to bring home the revolution that we had made in America.

Mere months after publication came the impeachment of Bill Clinton.

“So you want us to live the American dream?” one interviewer asked. “All a bit of nightmare now, isn’t it?”

And that was then.

That, or something like it, has happened at intervals ever since. If it wasn’t a hideous, only-in-America mass shooting, it would be an election in which a man with fewer votes defeated an infinitely more qualified opponent who had won more.

Usually, I have managed to deflect these challenges, arguing that my book was a homage to a founding ideal, not to the necessarily flawed reality. But it’s time for me to admit my doubts about its core idea – its admiration for the US constitution and system of government. For this first year of the Donald Trump presidency has exposed two flaws in the model that I cannot brush aside so easily.

The first is the one we keep talking about, the one we were talking about only yesterday – the fact that much of what we think is mandatory is actually a matter of custom, and thus worthless in the face of someone like Trump.

The first is that Trump has vividly demonstrated that much of what keeps a democracy intact is not enshrined in the written letter of a constitution, but resides instead in customs and conventions – norms – that are essential to civic wellbeing. Trump trampled all over those as a candidate – refusing to disclose his tax returns, for example – and has trampled over even more as president.

Convention dictated that he had to divest himself of private business concerns on taking office, to prevent a conflict of interest – but in the absence of a law explicitly forcing him to do so, he did no such thing. The same goes for appointing unqualified relatives to senior jobs, sacking the director of the FBI with no legitimate cause, or endorsing an accused child molester for the US Senate. No law told him he couldn’t, so he did.

There’s not even anything ruling out complete incompetence or mental dissolution.

[T]his year of Trump has also shown the extent to which the US has an unwritten constitution that – just like ours – relies on the self-restraint of the key political players, a self-restraint usually insisted upon by a free press. Yet when confronted with a leader unbound by any sense of shame – and shamelessness might just be Trump’s defining quality – America is left unexpectedly vulnerable.

There’s impeachment, but it turns out that impeachment is entirely political. Trump could eat babies on camera and still the Republican Congress would not impeach him.

In 2017 we saw with new clarity that the strength of the US constitution depends entirely on the willingness of those charged with enforcing it to do their duty. And today’s Republicans refuse to fulfil that obligation. They, like Trump, are without shame. This was a fatal oversight by Hamilton, James Madison and their fellow framers of the constitution. They did not reckon on a partisanship so intense it would blind elected representatives to the national interest – so that they would, repeatedly, put party ahead of country. The founders did not conceive of a force like today’s Republican party, willing to indulge a president nakedly hostile to ideals Americans once held sacred.

And to the most basic everyday inhibitions and ethical considerations.

And these weaknesses in the US model have prompted me to see others. The second amendment does not compel Americans to allow an unrestricted flow of guns into the hands of the violent and dangerous, but the fact that the argument hinges on interpretations of a text written more than two centuries ago is itself a problem. It means America, in the words of that great revolutionary Thomas Paine, is too often “like dead and living bodies chained together”, today’s generation shackled to the words of their ancestors.

Yes. It’s not working out well at present.

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