The inconveniences of constitutional government

LEWIS: . . . People want leadership, Mr. President, and in the absence of genuine leadership, they’ll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone.  They want leadership.  They’re so thirsty for it, they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.

THE PRESIDENT: Lewis, we’ve had presidents who were beloved, who couldn’t find a coherent sentence with two hands and a flashlight.  People don’t drink the sand because they’re thirsty.  They drink the sand because they don’t know the difference.

That great scene from The American President reminds me of where we are on the campaign trail.  I hear varied iterations of this question often: what can Republican candidates do to stop Donald Trump?  The answer: nothing.  The only ones who can end the Trump show are the American voters.  For now, however, all too many of these parched voters appear to be lapping up every drop of Trump’s sand, not knowing that it isn’t water.

Mr. Trump, some may say, seems like a lot of fun.  And why shouldn’t he be?  He speaks without consequence.  And that’s fun for people to watch and hear.  Problem is, the American Presidency is not a consequence-free institution.  Every four years we make sure of that; so, too, does Article II, section 4 of the Constitution.  Presidents, for example, must be careful and precise with their words.  Not because presidents need to be “politically correct,” or even experts on a particular subject, but because words matter, and they are like triggers on a starting gun when you are the President.  But neither Mr. Trump, nor those who support him, seem to care about this kind of constraint.  Mr. Trump, you see, isn’t much for limits.   And for his supporters, it’s not merely that they like that he is raw and unpolished.  Lots of candidates could fit that bill.  The glitzy, gold-plated Trump mirage, rather, is enticing to those who believe that the loudest, nastiest, most insulting, most unapologetic guy in the room is their real leader.  That is the sand from which they drink.

More than the consequences of overheated rhetoric, bluster, insults, and volume, though, are the consequences of failing at the task of governing a large, commercial republic in ways that are consistent with the demands of our Constitution and the rule of law.  I have said it before: the biggest problem with Mr. Trump is not his tone, his childishness, his boasting, or his inflated view of himself.  Those are problems, to be sure.  But the biggest problem with Mr. Trump as a candidate for the Presidency is substantive: that he appears to lack a meaningful – perhaps even a basic – understanding of constitutional government and the President’s unique and limited role in it.  Whatever his proposal – building border walls or imposing hefty tariffs on auto companies – he seems oblivious to the fact that a president is empowered to do none of those things unilaterally.  I cannot recall ever having heard him speak of working with Congress on anything.   And the judiciary seems to come up only when he speaks of suing people (from what I can tell, he likes judicial power when he wins in court).  For someone who is used to acting unilaterally, I can see how the Constitution will be a terrible inconvenience to him.

In light of the Kim Davis controversy, the Iran nuclear deal, and other matters, this has become a time when many of his colleagues on the trail are actually talking in comprehensive ways about constitutional government (some in more constructive ways than others).  Yet Mr. Trump does not.  That is likely because he either knows very little about it (a reasonable hypothesis) or because doing so would require him to acknowledge limits on his power.  For now, then, he simply ignores the inconveniences of constitutional government.  Of course, he can do that now, apparently without consequences.  Actual presidents cannot.

So there is probably very little that any candidate can do to reverse the course that Trump seems to be on.  That duty, rather, will fall to the American people, when they answer pollsters and fill out their ballots.  The only check on Mr. Trump right now is the wisdom and good sense of the American people – the hope, and only the hope, that regardless of their current fascination with fun and controversy, they are ultimately wise enough, and that they ultimately care enough about their country and its Constitution, to recognize and to avoid the Trump sand.

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