Op-Ed: Beyond Trump, A Post-Election Call for Self-Governance
Watching Spielberg's Lincoln is not a good pre-election activity. I will leave explanations to the analysts, about how the same nation that elected the author of the Gettysburg Address also voted for the author of “Think Big and Kick Ass in Business and Life," but here we are. Watching President Lincoln craft both slavery’s abolition and the Union’s restoration becomes all the more sobering considering that, in a world made anxious by terrorists and economic downturn, the most America’s next Commander in Chief can promise is that we are going to win a lot and make Mexico pay for a wall. It would appear Polybius’s cycle of regimes has reached its fulfillment, as the democratic mob gives way to a tyrant who rules as a monarchical master.
And yet, to paraphrase Cicero’s presentation of Aemilius Paulus, I wonder how long our eyes will remain fixed on the ground.
The world has known few nations like the United States of America, for many reasons. Something that sets the U.S. apart is that she can neither be identified nor defined by one man. We associate Macedonia with Alexander the Great, Rome with Julius Caesar, the French Empire with Napoleon. The closest America can offer is George Washington, exalted as the country’s father for willingly ceding power. The Oval Office can boast no empire-builders, philosopher kings or Spartan warriors, although it has hosted a skinny-dipping racist in Roosevelt, an accidental murderer in Pierce and a man so obese he had to be lifted into his bathtub in Taft.
America has no Alexanders but America is greater than the sum of her presidents. True, Washington and Lincoln and others exemplified the power of principled leadership but not even Franklin D. Roosevelt’s bureaucratic labyrinth or Lyndon B. Johnson’s welfare state -- executive leadership at its worst -- could dismantle the edifice of liberty and equal rights that is the United States. Publius, pseudonymous author of The Federalist Papers and defender of the Constitution, framed the institution of the presidency intentionally, setting ambition against ambition so that presidents may be mistakes, not death sentences.
Publius envisioned a country entirely different than nations centered around one man. Publius’s America was to be a nation of men governed by laws, men free to pursue happiness and holiness in thousands of ways, each vastly more important than who gave the annual State of the Union. This is the grand experiment of the American founding; this remarkable attempt to prove to the world that free men could govern themselves and use liberty well without direction from an autocrat.
Alexis De Tocqueville’s nine month journey through a still young America shows a flourishing experiment. Aside from a particularly long footnote about George Washington and some discourses on executive power, missing from Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is focus on the president. Instead, Tocqueville returns time and again to the civic virtue of the American people, which they learned not from the federal government but from the Little League. “At the head of any new undertaking, where in France you would find the government ... in the United States you are sure to find an association,” writes Tocqueville, hailing Americans’ tenacious care for their communities.
The true source of this exceptionalism, as Tocqueville discovered, was the Christian faith informing American mores:
I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers – and it was not there . . . in her fertile fields and boundless forests and it was not there . . . in her rich mines and her vast world commerce – and it was not there . . . in her democratic Congress and her matchless Constitution – and it was not there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.
This is why I wonder how long we will be fixed on the ground, for America was not founded on the ground. She is good because she is inextricably rooted in the notion that the Divine not only endows all men with His image but trains them to act nobly and charitably if they will but listen. Obedience to the nature and participation in the communities through which Providence reveals Himself teach self-government, and all America’s successes find their origin in her people’s ability to see beyond politics to the immaterial teleology of human existence.
America is Ronald Reagan urging Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down that wall, but in a truer sense she is my cousin getting engaged and the homeless outreach at the church down the street. She is the Leslie Knopes of the world pouring their hearts into town festivals and parents buying granola bars for school basketball games. She is families enjoying dinner on Sunday afternoons, medical researchers developing innovative technologies, and students at The King’s College gathering on the steps of Federal Hall for a day of prayer. The occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue matters a great deal but we drastically diminish our own greatness when we let that person define it.
We diminish our greatness when we expect the president to act for us. History has gifted us the opportunity to preserve Publius’ experiment, but the preservation depends on our action. If we desire to make America great again, then let us once again learn to govern ourselves. We must get back to the America that Tocqueville envisioned, one where associations kept the people happy and government accountable. Let us lead lives of virtue, moderation, and courage, studying the past to digest its lessons and investing in food pantries, schools and friendships. Most of all, let us turn our gaze toward he who is unseen and use him as our guide out of the wilderness.
Yes, Donald J. Trump is President of the United States. But he does not define us. He can keep trying to build his wall, but the new birth of freedom depends on us.