Donald Trump embodies how great republics meet their end

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Martin Wolf writes: In creating the American republic, the founding fathers were aware of the example of Rome. Alexander Hamilton argued in the Federalist Papers that the new republic would need an “energetic executive”. He noted that Rome itself, with its careful duplication of magistracies, depended in its hours of need on the grant of absolute, albeit temporary, power to one man, called a “dictator”.

The US would have no such office. Instead, it would have a unitary executive: the president as elected monarch. The president has limited, but great, authority. For Hamilton, the danger of overweening power would be contained by “first, a due dependence on the people, secondly, a due responsibility”.

During the first century BC, the wealth of empire destabilised the Roman republic. In the end, Augustus, heir of the popular party, terminated the republic and installed himself as emperor. He did so by preserving all the forms of the republic, while he dispensed with their meaning.

It is rash to assume constitutional constraints would survive the presidency of someone elected because he neither understands nor believes in them. Rounding up and deporting 11m people is an immense coercive enterprise. Would a president elected to achieve this be prevented and, if so, by whom? What are we to make of Mr Trump’s enthusiasm for the barbarities of torture? Would he find people willing to carry out his desires or not?

It is not difficult for a determined leader to do the previously unthinkable by appealing to conditions of emergency. Both Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt did some extraordinary things in wartime. But these men knew limits. Would Mr Trump also know limits? Hamilton’s “energetic” executive is dangerous. [Continue reading…]

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