By Gail Helt, Guest Author
In 1787 Ben Franklin would say about the presidents who would follow George Washington, “the first man put at the helm will be a good one. Nobody knows what sort may come afterwards. The executive will always be increasing here, as elsewhere, til it ends in monarchy.” When the Constitution was being debated, the Federalists believed that checks and balances—the separation of powers between branches of government, the ability of Congress to override a veto and to impeach, and others—would prevent the United States from returning to monarchy. James Madison, in Federalist number 10, said that the separation of powers would be a check in the event that “enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.”
We are 233 years removed from Franklin’s observation, and America is at a tipping point. The checks and balances enshrined in the Constitution have failed to prevent—to paraphrase Madison and Franklin—the rise of an unenlightened man who, at every opportunity, shows us he believes himself to be a king. In July 2019, the president claimed Article II of the Constitution allows him to do whatever he wants. When he claimed earlier this year the right to coerce foreign officials into investigating his political opposition, a move that led to his impeachment, his party in Congress said they believed he learned his lesson and refused to remove him from office. Without missing a beat, he immediately moved on to politicize the declassification of intelligence in ways that would benefit him politically, to use the institutions of government to interfere in the prosecutions of those he deems to be loyal to himself, to run an incoherent foreign policy that undermines our standing in the world and makes our allies question our commitment to our alliances, to use funds allocated for other things to build his wall after Congress refused to fund it, and to use his bully pulpit to undermine voters’ confidence in the integrity of our elections—the lynchpin of our democracy. In between, he stated his admiration for dictators, and in 2018 remarked when it was announced that Chinese President Xi Jinping had maneuvered constitutional reform that allowed him to remain in office for life, “maybe we’ll give that a shot.” In other words, the fears of Madison and Franklin have come true: we have an unenlightened statesman who considers himself to be a monarch at the helm.
America faces pressing challenges that must be confronted now—climate change, rising college costs, rising budget deficits, COVID-19, nuclear proliferation, and Chinese aggression, to name just a few—and we need a functioning executive and legislative branch to tackle them. Unfortunately, our executive branch is consumed by the president’s quest for power, forcing the legislative branch to focus on either running interference for him or investigating him.
This election year, you get to decide: do you want the monarchy the founders fled and feared or the republic that they pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to establish?
Professor Gail Helt spent nearly a dozen years at the CIA, writing and briefing primarily on issues related to East Asian security, politics, and governance She is currently the Coordinator of the Security and Intelligence Studies program at King University and teaches courses on China, intelligence ethics, and analysis.
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