A Short Lesson in History and Democracy for Donald Trump

February 5, 2017

The news out of the U.S. these days is enough to make anyone want to bury his or her head in the sand for the next four years. Whether potentially damaging foreign relations by referring to international agreements as “dumb,” telling female staffers at the White House to “dress like women,” or hijacking Black History Month commemorations, it is difficult not to conclude that Trump’s behaviour is unbecoming of a President and leader.

Most troubling is that Trump continues to make statements and take actions that directly undermine the American constitution and the foundations of law and democracy that both Canada and the U.S. are built upon. Most recently, he questioned the authority of a federal judge for stopping his executive order which imposed a travel ban on people arriving from certain Muslim countries by calling him a “so-called judge.”

Perhaps Trump has never been educated in the long history of western democracy and law, or perhaps he simply doesn’t care. For both reasons, I offer this short lesson in history and democracy for the new U.S. President:

  • American law is based on the British common law system, which established the tenant that nobody is above the law: There is a long history of rulers recognizing their limits to power. In 1215, “Bad” King John signed the Magna Carta – a charter of rights which affirmed that no one, not even a king or the president, is above the law of the land;
  • The American revolutionary war successfully saw the U.S. repudiate the British colonial system and establish a new type of democracy – one by the people, for the people (1). This was a reaction to the people of the American colonies not having any representation in the British parliament, which was enacting laws and establishing taxes without their input. So, America is founded on the premise that the will of the people is what should guide the country, not the will of a few;
  • The American civil war then saw a country divided: the southern states fighting for their independence from a united, federal system and for their right to own slaves, upon which their economies depended. This cause failed, slavery was abolished, and all men and women in the U.S. became free – free to vote, free to assemble, free to march, and free to oppose the policies forced upon them by government if they so choose. (Obviously the fight for equal recognition of freedom continues in the civil rights movement, women’s suffrage and equality, the LGBTQ movement, and others.); and
  • The federal government of the U.S. is composed of three branches: legislative (law-making), executive (decision-making), and judicial (law enforcing). A “so-called” judge is not simply some guy exerting his veto power over an executive order; he is constitutionally mandated to uphold the laws of the country – laws which were made by the people, for the people.

Which brings me to conclude that America should be governed by the will of the people, not by the will of one, that nobody, including Trump, is above the law, that American citizens are exercising their rights when they oppose the short-sighted policies being brought in with executive orders at this time, and that Trump should respect the judiciary as a third arm of the U.S. government.

Perhaps if Trump became educated or tried to understand his role in the history of western democracy, he would be humbled. Being president does not mean he is above the law – quite the contrary! It means he has sworn to uphold the democratic institutions upon which the country is built, that he is actually subject to the will of the people, not his whims, and that he should respect their rights.

(1) This phrase is attributed to President Abraham Lincoln as part of the Gettysburg Address, which was delivered in 1863 during the Civil War, not the American Revolution
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