John Adams and Donald Trump

It is often said on the American Right that the Constitution does not set up a democracy, but a republic. While the point is often rather pedantic- certainly the will of the majority does play a large role in our system, and that distinction isn't always relevant to the point being discussed- the difference is still crucial. And one can argue that the current Trumpian insurgency fails to understand it. Interestingly, I think the secularist Left also falls into the same error.

In a democracy, the majority rules. Period. It does not simply rule when matters of administration and routine policy  are being decided. In a true democracy, everything depends on the majority. You have those rights which the majority decides that you ought to have- no more, and no fewer. And those rights can change with the next election or referendum. Pure democracy differs little from mob rule. What "the people" want, "the people" get- and heaven help anyone who stands in their way.

And pure democracies tend not to last for long. If history teaches us anything, it's that sooner or later a popular leader comes along who is seen as embodying the will of the people. That's the way dictatorships are born. And once dictators take power- "by the will of the people-" only the will of the dictator matters.

That impulse to that sort of nonsense- know to historians as "populism-" has always been strong in our country. At times, it has advocated needed reforms. But left to its own devices, it always goes too far. Our republic has survived as long as it has because our Founders and other wise men since have understood that precisely for the sake of individual freedom the majority has to be restrained.

Secularists tend to think of our system as a democracy. Does a majority think that homosexual behavior is the moral equivalent of heterosexual behavior? Then the matter is settled- and you're a backward bigot if you disagree. Facts and social consequences are beside the point; the majority has spoken. Does the majority think that certain specific belief systems (secularism, for example) should be granted special privileges that, say Presbyterianism does not enjoy? Tough luck, Calvinists.

Theism of some kind is crucial to republics. In every other system, human rights are granted or withheld at the pleasure of a human agency. In absolute monarchies or dictatorships or other totalitarian systems, they are the gift of the State. In pure democracies, they are the gift of the majority. In each case, what can be given can also be taken away.

But in republics, human rights are considered to be immutable, permanent realities built into the structure of the universe. For all practical purposes, they may exist by the will of "nature and nature's God," as Deist Thomas Jefferson put it. Or a specific sectarian deity or deities may be invoked by some. Others (though this is dicey since it is vulnerable to the obvious challenge, "Says who?") may prefer to think of them simply as a natural part of the universe's structure, like the laws of physics. But republics can only exist when a consensus exists that specific human rights are unalterable and beyond the gift or the withholding of any human agency- even the majority.

Republics operate under greater constraints. They begin with rules, with structure, with things that are unchangeable- except, perhaps, through certain specified procedures, conducted in an orderly fashion. It used to be, for example, that a specific and intentionally cumbersome process (lest it is resorted to lightly or too often) was required to amend the Constitution. Now, all that is needed is a majority on the Supreme Court.

Republics ask not simply, "Does a majority want this?," but rather, "Is this reasonable? Is it good policy?" Republicans ask the merits of a proposal; democracies are only concerned with what most people happen at the moment to want.

The Trump phenomenon is a perfect example of populism. In the debates, Donald Trump has been largely incoherent. Other than bluster and insults, he has contributed little to the discussion. Rubio and Cruz and Bush and Kasich have thoughtfully debated the merits of certain ideas; Trump has, for the most part, simply made noise. Yet his supporters- and a plurality in debate after debate- have considered him the "winner." Why? Because the merits of what the candidates had to say were beside the point. Those who support Trump want him to win the debate. So he does- in the sense that they respond as if he had.

In a pure democracy, the majority rules. In a republic, the law rules. The law may be established by the will of the majority, but it until the majority changes the law even the majority is stuck with it.

But Trumpians go a step beyond even pure democracy. Roughly a third of the Republican electorate has voted for Donald Trump in the primaries and caucuses thus far. This is more than have voted for any other candidate, but it is obviously not a majority. In fact, a rather substantial majority has voted against Donald Trump and for various other candidates. But for the followers of The Donald, it is enough. They argue that the established rules- by which in order to claim the presidential nomination a candidate must receive the votes of a majority of the delegates to the national convention- is "trumped," so to speak, not by the will of the majority, but by the will of a mere plurality.

This goes beyond democracy even in its most radical form. And in American politics, that kind of radical regard for the "will of the people" (or, in this case, merely the biggest of several chunks of the people)- this radical populism- keeps popping up again and again, It's the deadly enemy of republicanism and the rule of law. As republics have found out ever since Julius Caesar, when popular leaders find themselves in the position which Trump has bragged that he is in- able to do anything, even commit murder at high noon on one of New York's busiest streets, without losing the support of the people- democracy is done for. Soon the Leader, as the embodiment of "the people's will," assumes the role of the majority- or even, in Jefferson's scheme of things, of God.

John Adams warned that once liberty is lost that way, it can never be regained. And Kevin Williamson of the National Review has written an informative piece about how Adams-the Founding Father who most acutely recognized he dangers of populism and radical democracy to individual liberty and the rule of law- might see the Trump phenomenon.

In fact, he writes about how Adams did see it- or foresee it. In this, it seems- as in so much else- the Founders saw the problems our Republic would face coming long ago, and left us their advice. Like Hari Seldon's periodic holographic appearances in the Foundation trilogy,  they have provided us in their writings  with the means to deal with crisis after crisis. The question, of course, is always whether we will heed their wisdom.

Majorities- like the dictators and potential dictators they so easily generate- are proud and narcissistic entities, which like to see themselves as all-powerful and their will as law. Republics- and republicans- on the other hand, are humble. They recognize that their will is- and ought to be- restrained because of their own capacity for impulsiveness and folly.

In a republic such as ours, the law is law. And when the will of the majority is law, republics and the individual freedoms they prize are done for.


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