Could America’s Founding Fathers see far, some 234 years, into the future? In declaring independence and fashioning a constitution, they were certainly trying to do so. And, in some cases, they succeeded. Consider this 78-word sentence written by James Madison and published as part of “Federalist 63” on March 1, 1788:
“As the cool and deliberate sense of the community ought, in all governments, and actually will, in all free governments, ultimately prevail over the views of its rulers; so there are particular moments in public affairs when the people, stimulated by some irregular passion, or some illicit advantage, or misled by the artful misrepresentations of interested men, may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn.”
On first reading, this sounds like an establishment pundit’s explanation of the defeat of President Donald Trump or the downfall of United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson. They are both “interested men” whose personal characteristics, starting with but not limited to their distinctive hairstyles, have been widely known to the public.
Both have been plausibly accused of peddling “artful misrepresentations.” Trump’s defeat and Johnson’s ouster are depicted by their critics and adversaries as the workings of “the cool and deliberate sense of the community.”
But the closeness of Trump’s defeat, narrow enough to be reversible by 43,000 votes in three states, and the suddenness of Johnson’s ouster cast doubt on whether this description is apposite.
A closer examination of Madison’s words, always worthwhile in his case, suggests another interpretation, one arguably more in line with recent facts and thus even more prophetic.
In this view, the “interested men” are not Trump and Johnson, but their predecessors — the community’s “rulers” whose decisions as “interested men” enabled the rise of their disruptive successors.
In Britain, the key decision was Prime Minister David Cameron’s campaign promise of a referendum on Britain leaving the European Union. It was a promise he never expected to fulfill because it would be opposed by his coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, in his 2010-15 government. But in 2015, his Conservatives unexpectedly won an absolute majority, and he had to deliver. He was outcampaigned by Vote Leave strategist Dominic Cummings and its most visible spokesman, Boris Johnson.
Brexit’s 52% victory shocked insiders of all three parties, and there were frantic efforts by insiders — “stimulated by some irregular passion, or some illicit advantage” — to overrule the voting public. They failed, thanks in large part to the theatric flair and steady nerve of Johnson, who in this case represented “the cool and deliberate sense of the community.”
If Cameron’s promise of a Brexit referendum seems like one of those “measures which they themselves will afterwards be most ready to lament and condemn,” so does President Barack Obama’s quiet decision to anoint Hillary Clinton as his successor instead of Joe Biden — the candidate who lost to Trump over the candidate who four years later would beat him.
Obama knew of Clinton’s illegal email and server, a liability that fortified her reputation for slipperiness with the truth. Only one-third of voters considered her honest and trustworthy.
As a president revered by the party faithful, Obama could have forced Clinton out of the race and given the party a nominee without her liabilities. He chose not to, a “measure” he surely became “ready to lament and condemn.”
Just as British insiders sought to delegitimize and undercut Brexit, Clinton campaign insiders fabricated their Russian collusion hoax — an “artful misrepresentation” — and Clinton signed off on its deployment.
Even after the campaign, Democratic politicians and intelligence and law enforcement insiders deployed this hoax, an “illicit advantage,” in order to delegitimize the new president and his administration.
Trump and Republicans who follow him are being criticized, justly, for seeking to delegitimize Biden’s victory. Alas, they are following the precedent of Clinton and other Democrats in seeking, and with plenty of help from sympathetic news media, to delegitimize Trump’s administration.
When and how will this cycle end? There are few signs now that either Trump or the Democrats are ready to “lament and condemn” the “measures” they have been taking.
In “Federalist 63,” Madison advises patience and reliance upon public opinion — “the cool and deliberate sense of the community” — which “will, in all free governments, ultimately prevail over the views of its rulers.” Which it mostly has, sooner or later, in the intervening 234 years.
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