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Lust for Power and Constitutional Limits

October 6, 2021

In an “OpEd” in the Washington Post for September 23, 2021, Robert Kagan, a “Never Trumper,” and colleague of Neoconservatives including Bill Kristol, predicts a  coming Constitutional crisis for which the Framers of the Constitution did not prepare.

The Founders did not foresee the Trump phenomenon, in part because they did not foresee national parties. They anticipated the threat of a demagogue, but not of a national cult of personality. They assumed that the new republic’s vast expanse and the historic divisions among the 13 fiercely independent states would pose insuperable barriers to national movements based on party or personality. “Petty” demagogues might sway their own states, where they were known and had influence, but not the whole nation with its diverse populations and divergent interests.

Such checks and balances as the Framers put in place, therefore, depended on the separation of the three branches of government, each of which, they believed, would zealously guard its own power and prerogatives. The Framers did not establish safeguards against the possibility that national-party solidarity would transcend state boundaries because they did not imagine such a thing was possible. Nor did they foresee that members of Congress, and perhaps members of the judicial branch, too, would refuse to check the power of a president from their own party.

The Framers did give us “checks and balances” but that was a mechanistic concept that assumed that government was a machine, not a culture.

Ours was a governing machine overseeing a large territory that no autocrat could master. The Framers probably did fear that the impulse to divide into factions was fertile ground for power hungry politicians, but they expected that an American chief executive would uphold the limits imposed on politics by our written Constitution.

In other words, the Framers did not anticipate an elected leader like Donald Trump whose character was so flawed that he would engage in an insurrection such as was attempted on January 6.

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