“The happy Union of these States is a wonder; their Constitution a miracle; their example the hope of Liberty throughout the world.”– James Madison, 1829.
Madison, who became the nation’s fourth president (1809-1817), is widely celebrated as the “Father of the Constitution” for his crucial role in drafting that famous document – a charter that would stand the test of time as an enduring beacon of democracy. And it did for a remarkable period.
But perhaps even constitutional miracles have a best-before date. There is no way the Founding Fathers could have foreseen how their inspired creation – the system of checks and balances among the executive, legislative and judicial branches – would be manipulated by later generations of partisan politicians into the gridlock that persists in Washington today or be exploited by ideologues to deny such widely accepted human rights as a women’s right to choose, same-sex marriage and assisted dying.
Nor could they have anticipated a Donald Trump, a rogue politician who lied his way into the White House, ignored the Constitution at his pleasure, surrounded himself with Republican lickspittles, cowed the legislative branch, largely bent the judiciary to his will by packing the federal courts, up to the Supreme Court, with conservative judges, failed to provide leadership on the great issue of his time – the coronavirus pandemic (“It is what it is”) – and capped four disastrous years by refusing to accept democracy’s clear verdict when the people voted to throw him out on his ear.
“It’s an embarrassment, quite frankly,” President-elect Joe Biden said of Trump’s refusal to concede.
Just an embarrassment? It’s an outrage. A disgrace. An offence against the values of James Madison and the generations of American politicians who have shared his vision of liberty.
It is worse than that. Democracy cannot survive unless all participants accept the core principle of peaceful transfer of power. Donald Trump does not accept that principle. With baseless lawsuits and executive actions, he has gone out of his way to obstruct the transition. He has been refusing to allow Biden and Kamala Harris and their transition teams access to government departments. He is denying them the funds that incoming administrations (including his, four years ago) traditionally receive to pay salaries and to rent offices for transition staffs until their Jan. 20 swearing-in. He will not provide them with secure communications and classified briefings.
When Trump became president-elect in 2016, Barack Obama promptly gave hm access to the “President’s Daily Brief,” a top-secret intelligence report on such things as terrorist threats, cyberattacks and impending epidemics. Biden had access to this brief when he was Obama’s vice-president. But not now that he has defeated Trump.
More seriously, the incoming president is being shut out of the planning, already well underway, for what promises to be a massive challenge within, hopefully, a few months of his taking office – the distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine to 330 million Americans. Known as Operation Warp Speed, it will be Biden’s responsibility the moment he is sworn in, whether he has been brought up to speed or not.
From the serious to the petty. On Trump’s instruction, the State Department, which is the conduit for incoming messages from foreign leaders, would not even let Biden see the congratulations pouring in after the election.
Nor would the department provide translators to help him when he called foreign leaders. Childish pique!
The Founding Fathers cannot be blamed for Donald Trump. Demagogues, faux populists and snake-oil salesmen can be thrown up in any system. Even in the British parliamentary system, which Madison and his fellows had no wish to emulate following the War of Independence. Democracy thrives when there is respect, dignity, truth and honesty – qualities that are sadly lacking in Trump’s counterfeit version of democracy.
Thomas Jefferson, among others, realized democracy must never be taken for granted. As he said (and he appears to have been the first of many to say it), “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”
Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, teaches political science at the University of Guelph. His column appears Mondays. He welcomes comments at [email protected]