Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Donald Trump, Un-American

Again and again, the president has rejected America's founding principles.
April 24, 2020
Donald Trump, Un-American
(Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

For all his “America First” sloganeering, the term that applies best to Donald J. Trump is “Un-American.” He has repudiated the oath of office and the documents at the core of our national identity: the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

Consider how he describes presidential authority. At a recent press briefing, he suggested that he could order states to reopen businesses. “The federal government has absolute power … I have the absolute right to do if I want to.” He has often made similar claims, including his assertion that he has an “absolute right” to seek foreign investigations of American political figures–an offense that triggered the first article of his impeachment. 

Absolute power was precisely what the Founders sought to avoid. The word “absolute” appears three times in the Declaration, always to proclaim what the patriots were fighting against: “absolute Despotism,” “absolute Tyranny,” and “absolute rule.” 

Trump’s threat to adjourn Congress calls to mind the Declaration’s charge that George III had “dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.”

To prevent anyone from gaining absolute power, the Constitution included elaborate checks on the government and provided that all officials would be accountable for their actions. Alexander Hamilton wrote that a British monarch “is the absolute master of his own conduct in the exercise of his office,” whereas in a republic, “every magistrate ought to be personally responsible for his behavior in office.”

Trump has said of his administration’s catastrophic failure to provide for coronavirus testing: “I don’t take responsibility at all.”

Article II of the Constitution commands the president to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” In 2016, House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) wrote: “The take-care clause is a bulwark against tyranny. It supports the separation of powers stipulated in the Constitution: The legislative branch makes law and the executive branch administers it.” Instead of administering the law, Trump has subverted it. During the Ukraine inquiry, he ordered the executive branch to defy lawful congressional subpoenas. This violation of his duty was an attack on the bulwark of the take-care clause and led to the second article of impeachment.

Even worse, he has undercut respect for the rule of law. When he told Michael Flynn and Michael Cohen to “stay strong,” he was not imploring them to testify truthfully. Instead, he was using Mafia language to suggest that they should not inform on him. When Cohen flipped, Trump struck back by openly urging an investigation of his father-in-law. Not exactly faithful execution.

Americans take pride in the system of justice: both the Declaration and the Constitution affirm the sanctity of trial by jury. After a federal jury convicted Trump-associate Roger Stone, the president not only denounced the verdict, but personally attacked the forewoman. All twelve jurors have written statements indicating that they now fear for their safety. One said: “It is intimidating when the President of the United States attacks the foreperson of a jury by name.” Even after those statements became public, Trump did it again, retweeting an accusation that the jury was “rigged” and “stacked.” 

The jurors have reason to worry. Over the years, Trump has come awfully close to inciting physical violence. At campaign rallies in 2016, he suggested that supporters should beat up disruptive protesters. His most ominous rally comment involved Hillary Clinton: “If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks, Although the Second Amendment people — maybe there is, I don’t know.” He soon denied that he was talking about assassination, but this is an example of the president’s tendency to leave room for doubt and lack clarity so that the nefarious can interpret his remarks as they wish.

Lately, he has issued tweets hinting at revolt against stay-at-home measures: “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” and “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” In one case, he added an allusion to guns: “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!” The specter of domestic insurrection is what led to the Constitutional Convention in the first place. A president who believed in the oath to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution” would never say such things. 

Shortly after the attacks of September 11, 2001, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani made inspirational remarks to the United Nations: “Our belief in democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human life—that’s how you become an American.” Trump has rejected the principles of the Founding and our nation’s fundamental law, and in the process, he has become an un-American.

John J. Pitney, Jr.

John J. Pitney, Jr., professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, is the author of Un-American: The Fake Patriotism of Donald J. Trump.