Yet our system of government was also devised to check that power, which is why Nadler’s observation packs a political punch. Unlike the monarchies of the 18th century, the republican government that the Founders designed was built around the core principle of moderation of power, one safeguarded by a Congress charged with oversight. Our current crisis reminds us how necessary — and fragile — that principle is.
Our Founders knew the risks of executive power. They uniformly accepted that Congress was to be the most important of the three branches, as laid out in Article I of the Constitution. John Adams insisted in 1787 that “free governments” differed from monarchies on the strength of the democratic element in their legislatures that “communicates all the wants, knowledge, projects, and wishes of the nation … which never can be obtained in a monarchy.”
Without an energetic body checking the executive and safeguarding the free communication of information, even a republican government would veer toward monarchy. It is for this reason that the House — the one national body elected by citizen-voters directly at the time of the Founding — has long been expected to play a vital role in ensuring government transparency. As the nation’s first secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson unequivocally defended Congress as a “body of inquest” as pertains to demanding documents.
What makes President Trump seem like someone aspiring to become king is his rejection of this — or any — accountability. He has been aided by his Cabinet, which has gone to great lengths to shore up his claims of unrestricted executive privilege. William P. Barr’s apparent audition to be attorney general, his unsolicited June 2018 memo, decried Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into the president’s possible obstruction of justice as “unprecedented” and “sweeping.”
Barr outlined a vision of executive power that could not help but attract Trump’s notice. “Constitutionally, it is wrong to conceive of the President as simply the highest officer within the Executive branch hierarchy,” he wrote. “He alone is the Executive branch. As such, he is the sole repository of all Executive powers conferred by the Constitution. Thus, the full measure of law enforcement authority is placed in the President's hands, and no limit is placed on the kinds of cases subject to his control and supervision.”
No limit? Barr wants the president to be untouchable, above the law. Like a king.
Adams saw this deceptive, self-aggrandizing president (or someone like him) coming. Adams was aware of the potential for a gradual takeover of government institutions by a corrupt individual or class, writing as an ex-president in 1814, “There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”
Adams also knew one of the potential risks that would allow this sort of figure to rise and destroy democracy: the danger of idolatry. He understood that citizens are susceptible, as spectators, when they are lured by entertainment or appearances more than they demand ideas. He wryly observed that George Washington’s most important trait was not anything inherently republican, but rather his “handsome face,” tall stature and graceful carriage. His birthday was celebrated years before he took the oath of office. Such figures could seduce the populace and the political class, enabling them to take actions against the common good.
Today, the risk is even higher, as media ranging from television to Twitter give presidents a unique platform and viewers a false sense of intimacy. As political parties (which the Founders also fretted about) have lost their hold on candidate selection, personality has also emerged as a key quality of presidential campaigns. Charisma has become the modern substitute for the divine right of kings — a kind of magical authority — and a candidate must display this intangible, nearly superhuman quality that produces an emotional attachment.
We see plainly that the source of Trump’s strength is a corrosive cult of personality. Yet Republicans in Congress who secretly admit to hating him personally, who abhor his chaotic style of governing, do not challenge him on the public stage. His arena-filling rallies, repeating empty boasts and mantra-like insults, are preemptive, warning any who think they can compete with his personal popularity that they’ll be branded “losers,” “traitors,” “enemies of the people.” By his royalist construction, he, above all others, embodies the true will of the people. In Adamsian terms, these weaknesses are clues to democracy’s suicidal tendencies.
Trump makes offhand pronouncements that suggest he actually believes himself above the law. He rewards those who flatter him and punishes those who dare criticize. He hires the ethically challenged and his immediate family. He pardoned his friend and biographer Conrad Black, whose fraud conviction was beyond dispute, but whose saving grace was to have termed Trump “a genius for spectacle.”
This is how politics are conducted in a royal court. When Trump insisted that members of his Cabinet be televised stating how much they adored working for him, it was a reality-TV version of a troth of loyalty, as if each had placed a hand on a copy of his bogus “The Art of the Deal.”
Trump, of course, is not the first president to test the bounds of executive power or even to cultivate a status more monarchical than democratic. The judicial branch (along with a complicit Congress) has repeatedly found ways to justify endowing the chief executive with royal powers not enumerated in the Constitution. The obvious example is the infringement on Congress’s right to declare war, which presidents since Franklin D. Roosevelt have circumvented. The danger of royal prerogative led the Founders to insist that the Senate approve treaties, the House control the purse strings. The president is the “face” of the nation, whose personal power required strong checks upon his foreign entanglements, his proneness to secrecy or his desire to pursue expensive wars.
The remedy to overreach resides in that hallmark of Congress’s powers: its “right of inquest.” Adams was explicit: Great care must be taken to “prevent unfair, partial, and corrupt elections.” For the rule of law to succeed, for democracy to work, great men must still be subject to rules, equal to all other citizens in the eyes of courts and legislatures; they must practice “humility, patience, and moderation” to be worthy of the electorate’s trust.
It is up to Congress to reestablish the balance of power. There are no two ways about it: No president is immune from a congressional inquest. The president is never above the law. Executive privilege is not royal prerogative, and it is high time that Congress arrest the mad dash back to monarchy that Trump and his aides are attempting. Checks and balances — in essence, the need to be humbled — are what the Founders believed could alone curb the cult of personality.