It has been several decades since I have been camping in a remote area far away from a town or other people.
One thing I remember is that a campfire at night was comforting. There was something primeval about the fire and the protection it offered. The more remote the area, the darker the night. There was more need for the warmth and light the fire provided. The Constitution is our campfire keeping the wolves outside the circle.
We sometimes forget how close we are to a civic darkness. In order to have a civilized society, there must be a respect for civic values. The United States is not unified by blood ties or tribes. Our nation is one of laws and rules that the vast majority of citizens and residents must be willing to accept to be an American. The United States has democratic norms and traditions. We pride ourselves on not being subject to the whims of the crowd or the dictates of any one person.
That scenario only works if every citizen and resident play his/her part. Our entire societal fabric can fray in an instant if we no longer adhere to the norms that keep us humming along. For many years and through both Republican and Democrat administrations and congresses, we have let partisanship count for more than our Constitution. We hold no truths to be self-evident if they get in the way of what we want to believe.
I lived through Vietnam and Watergate and, while the nation came close to slipping into anarchy, the norms held. During the 1960s, the United States lost a president, a civil rights leader, and a presidential candidate to gun violence. Violent protest, student revolt and the beginnings of an escalating drug problem were being played out in city streets across the country.
We had a political scandal in the Nixon Administration that defied common sense. Here was a guy that couldn’t lose but managed to win in a way that led to his resignation. It was a time of escalating crime, a disregard for American decency, and societal changes that were so profound that it would take nearly two decades to return to a semblance of American values.
A few good people and fortunate events prevented our nation from succumbing to the wolves beyond our fires. First and foremost, the nation’s leaders did not completely abandon our democratic traditions and the rule of law. With all his faults, Nixon understood how government worked. He did not adhere to the law, but he respected the process. Individual lawmakers had a greater allegiance to their oaths of office than their partisan labels.
What President Trump did by declaring a national emergency was to take a bucket of water to the campfire of American democracy. The Republican political establishment has abandoned its principles of limited government and fiscal conservatism so that a few may be called senator and congressman. It is the trading of constitutional virtue for the political gospel of ambition
Our disdain for political norms didn’t start with Trump’s election. Obama ruled by executive order and congress allowed it. Bush 43 faked the intelligence which precipitated our wars in the Middle East and congress went along. From FDR to Clinton, the United States Congress either ignored the sapping of its authority or decided to willfully consent through law and action to the United States Executive, Article 1 authority for the sake of political expediency.
What kept this dissolution of congressional responsibility tolerable was that the executive knew that boundaries existed. Discretion was necessary. The rules must be adhered to. The fig leaf of protocol must be maintained. But the fires of our democratic civilization were ebbing.
The citizens turned a blind eye if the president was our guy, and we abhorred his behavior if he was not. We ignored the principle that was violated and praised/complained about the actions of the man. What we forgot was that the rules, laws, and U.S. Constitution were there to keep the home fires burning and the wolves from our circle.
All the above was prologue to the election of someone who didn’t know or care about the rules, laws, or Constitution. Citizens for the past 50 years forgot that government was our civic religion and not a sporting match. We became spectator fans of the game as if government was football or tennis. Trump plays the game as a gladiator in Roman times and not as Tom Brady on a football field.
Will Congress now reclaim the field? It need do nothing more than take back its Article 1 powers. Congress should pass laws and make the executive run the government with the policy set by them. It is not difficult. In order for our system to work, there needs to be a strong legislative branch.
There is nothing magical to achieve. Congress just needs to not be subservient but equal. This needs to occur whether the executive is Republican or Democrat, Liberal or Conservative.
Trump has brought us to a place the citizens should have never allowed. It is our fault because we would rather look at the brand than the person. The voters need to realize that a D or R is no longer a predictor of a person’s governing philosophy. Our nation is perilously close to having nothing to protect us from the wolves.