The Madisonian Case Against Trump
Protecting the republic from people like Donald Trump is the whole point of the U.S. Constitution.
A certain view of the Founding generation popular on the Republican right likes to portray the Founders as, deep down, rebels—iconoclasts preternaturally wary of overweening authority, always minded to side with those who push back against the depredations of the state elite. The pop right-wing version of the Second Amendment, for instance, stresses its roots in the Lockean right (indeed, duty) to revolt against tyrannical government, concluding that the Founders slyly enshrined an abhorrence of elite power per se.
This vision is not just wrong but exactly backward. There’s real irony—and profound historical ignorance—in the idea, shared by millions, that the January 6th mob was somehow championing the Constitution as originally intended, and that this week’s indictment of Donald Trump is somehow a subversion of it.
The founding generation was petrified of the class of events to which January 6th belongs. They were haunted by the worry that in overthrowing monarchical authority they would inadvertently set the new republic on the path first to anarchy and then to tyranny. Rather like the makers of Artificial Intelligence today, Madison, Hamilton and the rest of the gang were acutely aware that they were meddling with awesome powers, and that getting it wrong could have disastrous consequences for the future.
In 1786, these were not academic preoccupations. That year, a Revolutionary War veteran from the Wild West (which, in those days, meant western Massachusetts) led a thousand armed men in a protest movement against the heavy taxes being levied on him and his fellow farmers to pay Revolutionary War debts. Though Daniel Shays’ movement was, if anything, scrupulously orderly, what came to be remembered as Shays’ Rebellion brought back all the old fears that America’s poor would begin revolting all the time.
It was the specter of Shays-style lawlessness, with regular people refusing to acknowledge the legal authority of the institutions of the state, that pushed the founding elite to agree, in 1787, that a constitution creating a strong central government was going to be needed after all.
James Madison in particular, with his dim view of people’s ability to govern themselves on a lasting basis, was obsessed with the need to build protections against mob rule into the United States Constitution. For a popular demagogue to lead a conspiracy to defraud the United States in an attempt to obstruct the lawful results of a presidential election was the stuff of Madison’s nightmares.
Related: “Inside the Insurrection” with Sabrina Tavernise.
Plato had first identified the democracy doom-loop in his Republic 2100 years earlier. In his view, tyranny is implicit in the internal logic of any democracy: by putting power in the hands of those best able to rile up the majority, democracy builds huge incentives for aspiring demagogues to try their luck at manipulating the masses.
The appeals such men use are always the same: riling up the good, downtrodden people against an elite portrayed as corrupt. Given the huge numerical advantage the poor have over the rich in society, democratic decision-making would always be vulnerable to the populist playbook. Aspiring demagogues would continually come forward to try to unleash the mob against the institutions of the republic. Eventually one would succeed, and make himself tyrant.
That republics have a tendency to eat themselves by propelling unfit men to positions of power wasn’t just well known to the Founders: it was conventional wisdom verging on cliché. In the terrible winter of 1777-1778, as the Continental Army nearly starved in Valley Forge, General Washington went to real trouble to have the troops stage a production of Addison’s Cato, a hugely popular play lionizing the fine old patrician Roman stoic senator for standing up to the budding tyrant Caesar and the rabble who supported him.
Because we live in the 21st century instead of the 18th, we fail to quite grasp how dominant these classical frames of reference were in the Founding elite’s mind. Membership in the circle virtually required boys to be steeped in Greek and Latin since childhood; being conversant in the common stories and frames of the ancients was a mandatory stamp of belonging to the elite. The classics provided the common ground the elite met on: a shared stock of stories and analyses that underlay discussions between the kinds of learned men who saw it as their natural duty to govern society.
And we know from Madison’s influential Federalist 10 that Plato’s doom-loop was front of mind as he agitated for adoption of the U.S. Constitution: “Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs, may, by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests, of the people.”
The Constitution’s central selling point was precisely that it would create a federal government—and a federal judiciary—strong enough to prevent Plato’s doom-loop from taking hold.
All of this is to say that using the federal courts to prosecute a politician who tries to stir up his faction’s violent passions to remain in power despite having no legal right to do so is close to the whole point of the United States Constitution as originally understood by the people who wrote it.
True, the Founders took it for granted that if a demagogue whipped up a mob against the lawful transfer of power, it would be on behalf of the unpropertied. That a self-styled conservative could have led such a mob would never have occurred to them, much less that the mob would imagine itself to be championing the constitution they were writing.
And we should not ourselves fall into the originalist trap of thinking that just because the founding elite would have wanted something, that something must be right. The Founders were people, just like the rest of us, fallible like we all are, and startlingly retrograde in some respects. Nor does any of this suggest that Trump will necessarily be found guilty, much less that a conviction will put a check on his brand of chaos.
But let’s not pretend the Founders didn’t address this question. Their ideas about what should happen to people who act the way Donald J. Trump acts are clear as day.
Francisco Toro is a contributing editor at Persuasion.
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