The most important player in a republic—including ours—is the citizen.
From our consent, leaders derive the authority to govern: to raise taxes, to declare war, to enforce laws and treaties, and to do all the things we expect of government. From the ranks of citizens, our government draws its judges, its soldiers, its officials at every level—including our representatives in the House and Senate as well as the White House. There is no hereditary class of leaders in the American tradition.
In the United States, it is because our government is, as Lincoln put it, “of the people,” and “by the people,” that it is also “for the people.” The U.S. government exists to protect our rights, to pursue our commonwealth, our shared progress, and our societal growth. In a well-functioning republic, government does not serve the interests of any individual leader or faction, but the interests of all citizens. We can have incredibly spirited debates about what “the interests of all citizens” might be, but historically we have understood that it extended far beyond the narrow interests of current political leaders.
Now, just a week after Senate Republicans blocked the conviction of President Trump in his impeachment trial, we see the Executive Branch not engaged in the pursuit of the public good, but in a narrow prosecution of the president’s personal interests. We’re witnessing a purge of executive branch personnel who testified against the president. We’re seeing nominations of qualified Americans withdrawn from consideration in the Senate because they might be questioned about the president’s actions in Ukraine. We’re witnessing—in broad day-light—presidential interference in the criminal prosecutions of his friends and supporters.
This is not normal.
The president drives this agenda with a kind of open information warfare against the American public. He attacks, again and again, any news source that doesn’t push a narrative favorable to him as “fake news.” He floods the information space with distractions and misdirection. He uses a technique known as “reflexive control,” to illicit narratives and questions that serve his own purposes. (The Hunter Biden story was baseless, but it got reporters all over the country to report on an allegation of corruption involving the Biden family. The truth didn’t matter, the allegation did, and Joe Biden has suffered in the polls as a result.) Finally, the president relies on the “illusory truth effect”—in short, if someone repeats a claim again and again, it will gain an audience who accept it as gospel truth. That’s why the president so often repeats short-hand phrases like “the witch-hunt” to describe the Mueller investigation, or “socialists” to describe Democrats; and uses nicknames like “Shifty Schiff,” or “Nervous Nancy” to diminish his opponents. He’s telling a story that might not be believable at first blush, but over time his claims gain ascendency through the simple process of repetition.
But more than his critics in Congress, the president must respect the American electorate—the citizen, because it is we, the people, who will decide, ultimately, whether he remains in office a year from now. We will decide if we’re okay with his intervention for personal gain in criminal prosecutions, with his interference in the prosecution of war crimes, or with his attacks on the professionals in the U.S. intelligence community, the FBI, and the Department of Defense. Collectively, citizens will be the judge and jury of this presidency.
For me, the central question in the 2020 election is which candidate will best preserve and defend the Constitution of the United State of America. The republic we love is on the ballot and the stakes couldn’t be higher.