The Framers saw Trump coming

The Framers saw Trump coming
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How is it possible that a 230-year old document signed by men who could not have imagined American politics today still applies? The facile answer to this question is that it does not. The Constitution is obsolete. It is true that the Founding Fathers were flawed men who were responsible for profound human suffering.

As the president recently said during a press conference in which he defended white supremacists, Thomas Jefferson was a “major” slave owner. It is also true that the Framers could not have perceived the specific problems facing a diverse nation with more than 300 million people living in it. But the Framers knew people to be selfish, ambitious and susceptible to the seductions of fame and fortune.

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This makes the Constitution relevant because although our country has changed, human nature has not. The grim perception of the human condition that our Framers had continues to preserve our republic. With power-hungry elites and undiscerning voters in mind, the Framers designed institutional obstacles to winning elections and implementing policy, some of which have not fulfilled their original purpose, and some which have.

Alexander Hamilton argued in the Federalist Papers that instituting an electoral college comprised of wise and educated American citizens would prevent the uninformed public from electing charismatic presidential candidates who excelled in “the little arts of popularity” rather than candidates who possessed the qualities needed to govern effectively.

The problem is, of course, that electors are just people. They are either elected directly by the uninformed public, or they are appointed by people who were elected by the uniformed public. The argument that electors are likely to check the wishes of the public rather than acquiesce to them is therefore a difficult one to make.

This norm was reinforced in 2016 despite the amount of attention given to electors who threatened to break rank with their party to prevent a Trump presidency. Faithless electors who defect from their expected vote have been scarce throughout American history, and they have never changed the outcome of a presidential election.

The Framers acknowledged this possibility. The very idea of the electoral college was conceived from their belief that people could not be trusted to make good choices. Behold one of Hamilton’s many hedges in Federalist No. 68: “This process of election affords a moral certainty the office of President will seldom fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.”

Perhaps the most important institution installed by the Framers to keep America from self-destructing is a government with three branches. If the electoral college did not act as the failsafe Hamilton envisioned, then an unfit candidate would not be able to subvert the government to which he or she was elected to lead.

The Framers realized a unitary and independent executive was necessary through the failures of the Articles of Confederation. Presidents must be able to act quickly to defend the nation from foreign threats. Yet the executive would not be able to write and implement laws without the approval of Congress and the judiciary.

Although the Supreme Court has recently dealt the Trump administration some victories on its controversial travel ban, a decision has not been made about its legality. The executive order has faced challenges from lower courts and the public from its inception. The president’s decision to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals faces a similarly steep uphill battle as lawsuits from individuals and states pile up.

The wall between U.S. and Mexico that Trump promised to build remains theoretical. Its expense and symbolism has deterred Republicans and Democrats alike. And in one of the most humiliating moments of the Trump administration so far, the president failed to deliver one of his signature campaign promises: repealing the Affordable Care Act.

You might ask, how in the world did that happen with both houses of Congress in his possession? Three faithless Republican senators voted against their own interests and the interests of their party. Maybe the Founding Fathers aren’t rolling over in their graves after all.

Lauren A. Wright, Ph.D., is a lecturer in politics and public affairs at Princeton University and the author of “On Behalf of the President: Presidential Spouses and White House Communications Strategy Today.” You can follow her on Twitter @DrLaurenAWright.