There’s a quote about Thomas Jefferson that I have long found informative. Over time, I’m forgotten both the source and the exact language but the general idea is something like this: “The problem with Jefferson is that he believes the things he says about democracy.” The idea is a response to Jefferson’s faith in the common man, which many of his philosophical peers found naive. In fact, there wasn’t much democracy in the original American constitution. Presidents and members of the Senate were chosen indirectly, by the Electoral College and state legislatures respectively. There was no direct democratic input in the selection of judges. The people did directly select members of the House of Representatives, but that’s only half of one branch out of the three that makes up the federal government. There was more direct democratic influence in the American government than any other nation circa 1792, but it wasn’t all that much. The founders weren’t as confident in the common man as we think.
Jefferson did have that confidence and I’ve always found it both charming and prescient on his part. As our nation has grown, the franchise was extended, and the voters had greater democratic influence, our citizens have mostly risen to the demands of self-government. And make no mistake, self-government does make demands on the people. Then along comes a presidential candidate like Donald J. Trump and my inner elitist hears the voice of Alexander Hamilton and wonders what the hell Jefferson could have been thinking.
A good friend of mine has taken to referring to Donald Trump as simply T-Rump, which has the virtue of conveying exactly what kind of jackass we’re dealing with. I was among the many political observers who felt that the T-Rump candidacy would flame out just in time for the Republican mainstream to swoop in and select their usual candidate; someone like Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, or even Marco Rubio seemed the likely outcome. None of those candidates were pleasing to me, largely because their policy views don’t mesh with mine. But they were at least leaders grounded in ideas.
T-Rump is a whole other kind of animal. His demonstrated understanding of the economic and political system is virtually nonexistent; his life of privilege has enabled him to believe that working hard is all it takes to enjoy success in America. His ideas about women are horrifying. I actually do think that he cares for his fellow citizens, but only to the extant that they worship him in return. That isn’t leadership, it’s the stroking of a helium-filled ego. Moreover, it’s dangerous in a nation that requires self-governance. Democracy in a republic of our size and diversity requires compromise and consideration of alternatives in the form of well thought-out ideas. That’s not easy and it can be derailed if one side opts for a win at all costs mentality, as the Republican party has chosen for the last dozen years. They are now reaping the consequences of that brand of leadership in the form of candidate T-Rump, who is stirring up 30% of Republican voters in a frenzy of incoherent demands that cannot possibly be met.
The rest of us —— the 70% of Republicans who don’t support T-Rump and the 100% of Democrats staring on in horror, will be left to sort out the challenge of self-government. And here it’s worth reminding Republicans what Jefferson knew: real leadership requires the voicing of objections in a thoughtful and coherent fashion and then moving forward to find common ground. It means taking the risk that you will lose power but retain principle, because you said what needs to be said for the good of the republic. It means understanding that America is only as great as its ability to work together and compromise.