(Apologies for the mawkish offense to good taste on the last one. But it was just so kitschy, it screamed star-spangled bunting and apple pie.)
America’s institutions have seen better days: brighter days, more secure days, days full of trust and reverence and glassy-eyed loyalty. But those golden days of shared admiration are over. Just Google “America institutions fail” and slog through the endless resultant pages. Every middling periodical here and abroad has taken stock of the precipitous drop in yankee adulation for our country’s underpinning entities.
Institutional collapse—a tale as old as time, duty and defeat. (Imagine the last line sung in D-flat major, preferably by Angela Lansbury’s homely voice, for the full effect.)
Faith in America as a whole has hit King George III waltzing with Ali Khamenei levels. The anti-patriotic (not merely unpatriotic, but against) sentiment was summed up in a viral tweet reacting to Donald Trump’s acquittal by the Senate over whipping up a MAGA mob into a feral frenzy: “The most American thing I can think of is that 57 people voted to convict and 43 voted to acquit, and the 43 people won.”
Ziiiiiing. Take that, America! Your democracy is a fraud and your feet smell! Feisty young-adult fiction author, one; USA, zero. No, wait, negative one! Ha!
The simple arithmetic of the tweet should grate everyone’s democratic sensibility. How can 43 beat 57? It must be FASCISM. Or Orwell. Or Orwell’s pigs solving fascistic algebra equations in the mud.
In attempting to dunk on Uncle Sam, the author of the tweet, teen-tract scribbler Margaret Owen, swooshes the ball in the wrong hoop like a confused Washington General. She inadvertently shows that the Constitution, and all the formal checks and balances it imposes on our governmental system, is in good repair.
Anyone not schooled in a Upper West Side co-op knows why the Founding Fathers feared direct democracy. Majoritarianism does not build consensus; it encourages factionalism and strife, with power-mongers vying for that cigarette-paper-thin 50.00001% majority. The Constitution’s requirement of two-thirds of senators affirming an impeachment conviction is a prudential requirement to limit an already drastic measure: forced removal of the chief executive. Were the conviction threshold a simple majority, the President would be tossed out on his bummy every time Congress was controlled by the opposing party. Such a frequent changing of the guard would make for exciting CNN coverage, but not for a good, stable governance.
The second impeachment of Donald Trump, far from a symbol of our moribund civic fettle, was a refreshingly welcome sign of the constancy of the Constitution.
And the Capitol Hill riot, bizarre and disconcerting as it was to witness in real time, demonstrated the resilience of that hoary legal concept called the Electoral College. Joe Biden was affirmed as the Electoral College winner as soon as all the MAGA stragglers were ferreted out. The system worked, in spite of delay.
The nation’s cornerstone charter survived the presidency of a Fifth Avenue parvenu. So much for all the hype over America’s death-by-Trump.
In January of 2016, the contrarian commentator James Poulos took a different tact in assessing whether an inexperienced hotel magnate presented an existential threat to the American order. “Could Trump unleash hell on earth?” Poulos asked. In hindsight, the question seems quaint. Outside of indecorous tweets and spectacle of his grubby acolytes aimlessly traipsing through the Capitol, the Trump presidency was like many that came before it: Washington amassed more dominion, Congress ran the national credit card like a toddler in Toys “R” Us, stock market integers kept compounding.
Poulos was not hair-on-fire concerned that Trump would gobble up our institutional guardrails like a Big Mac. “Our national institutions may be weakened and corrupted. But our habits, customs, and memories are not so poorly off,” he wrote. “Trump is far more likely than Napoleon was to be constrained by the deep cultural and historical fabric that truly holds the so-called status quo in place.”
So it went. Trump spent much of his presidency under investigation for being in cahoots with a foreign power during his election. His campaign hirelings and personal lawyer were charged and jailed for sundry financial crimes. For a republic-crushing, norm-smashing, authority-bulking dictator, Trump had a tough time keeping his allies out of the clink.
“Institutions don’t exist as buildings do—as something that can be seen and touched,” John Ellis wrote. “They are only arrangements among people, and they only exist as long as the people concerned think they exist.” The objective enforcement of the law remains indefeasible in the quinched face of subjective caterwauling, whether it be Trump’s squeely vociferating about the “very, very stolen election!” or Twitter wokesters furious Forty-Five isn’t enjoying post-presidency life in Sing Sing genpop.
The défrenestation manqué was illustrative of the Constitution’s extant hold on the legal machinations of our country. There was even a robust debate over the constitutional standing of the entire process, with senators arguing for and against using highfalutin legal terms like “original public meaning” and “conjunctive.” Whether or not Article 1, Sec. 3 applies to ex-post presidents is an open inquest. But the very consideration of the question was a veritable civic renewal compared to the vying for Twitter brownie points that normally constitutes (pardon the pun) our politics.
If America’s institutions are on the path of terminal decline, the past week’s legal grappling was a welcome bump-beep on the EKG. That dusty piece of parchment is still good for something. Lysander Spooner wasn’t right about everything. Not yet anyway.