Like many of the President's critics, Sam Harris seems to be unable to dispassionately assess the present moment.
Donald J. Trump’s remarkable rise to the presidency presents this conundrum: The constitutional duties of the office he attained by stoking public passions now requires him to be willing to resist them. That is not because his voters should be regarded, merely for having supported him, as impassioned rather than reasonable. Such would be the very condescension that partly motivated them. The point, rather, is that the constitutional purpose of the presidency is not to give the people the “voice” that Trump promised to provide but rather to channel their impulses toward their interests.
This is part of the natural transition from campaigning to governing. No one seeks the White House on a platform of telling the people they cannot have what they immediately desire, and no one, including those of us who opposed him, should realistically have expected Trump to break that mold.
Other molds he did, of course, break. To a remarkable degree that redounds to his political credit, he utilized social media and other tools to forge a direct relationship with voters. The challenge before him now is to replace that relationship with the appropriate distance that the Constitution he will soon swear to preserve and protect demands.
He can start by consulting Federalist 71, in which Publius warns that the President’s job is not to give voice to public opinion:
There are some who would be inclined to regard the servile pliancy of the Executive to a prevailing current, either in the community or in the legislature, as its best recommendation. But such men entertain very crude notions, as well of the purposes for which government was instituted, as of the true means by which the public happiness may be promoted.
Note that well: Publius signals that the very “purposes for which government was instituted” are at stake. He had foreshadowed them in Federalist 49. “[I]t is the reason of the public alone, that ought to control and regulate the government.” So far, so good, but then he delivers the punchline that requires President Trump to pivot from Candidate Trump: “The passions ought to be controled [sic] and regulated by the government.”
The President, we learn as Federalist 71 proceeds, plays a special role in the control and regulation of the passions. But “regulation” is key, for it is the passions’ transformation into reason, not simply their thwarting, that Publius seeks. Thus the President cannot be “servile[ly] plian[t]” to a “prevailing current” but will nonetheless have to pay what Jefferson had famously called—in a phrase to which Publius alludes in Federalist 14—“a decent regard” to public opinion.
What, then, are the “true means by which the public happiness may be promoted”? The President will serve as a speed bump rather than a roadblock. Federalist 71 continues:
The republican principle demands, that the deliberate sense of the community should govern the conduct of those to whom they intrust the management of their affairs; but it does not require an unqualified complaisance to every sudden breeze of passion, or to every transient impulse which the people may receive from the arts of men, who flatter their prejudices to betray their interests.
As I have elsewhere argued, the temporal references are key. Passions are “sudden,” and impulses “transient.” The suggestion is that over the course of time, reason naturally prevails. Consequently:
When occasions present themselves, in which the interests of the people are at variance with their inclinations, it is the duty of the persons whom they have appointed, to be the guardians of those interests; to withstand the temporary delusion, in order to give them time and opportunity for more cool and sedate reflection.
In other words, the people are usually sensible but occasionally inflamed. The delusion, crucially, is “temporary”: correctable by time. It needs merely to be “withstood” so that the people themselves can calmly reflect—a responsibility with which Publius is plainly comfortable entrusting them.
Publius fortifies the President to perform this seasoning function with a four-year term, which he says is sufficient for the executive to “reasonably promise himself, that there would be time enough before it arrived, to make the community sensible of the propriety of the measures he might incline to pursue. . . . He might then, with prudence, hazard the incurring of reproach.”
Trump, to be sure, can justly be accused of having committed the above-mentioned flattery of the public’s prejudices to betray its interests. But that is done. The question now is whether @realdonaldtrump can become @POTUS by risking the adoration of his crowds to protect the genuine interests of his supporters.
That may require telling them, for example, that impeding economic freedom by substantially restricting trade will neither save nor restore their jobs and may in fact imperil them. At a minimum, it requires a constitutional distance that will, in turn, demand an adjustment of personal style. Trump by all accounts feeds off crowds, and they off him, a trait in which he is not alone but which, like other things, he takes to 11 and which reports say he wants to continue as President. His thumbs are drawn seemingly inexorably to his Twitter account. His impulse toward the demagogic is undeniable.
To be sure, his election signals the triumph of a new and probably irreversible age of politics. This new age of politics, incidentally—and Progressives must confront this fact—was begun by Barack Obama. The outgoing President ushered us into this era of “change” without content, politics without intermediaries, and presidential parent figures without personal responsibility. There is a substantial sense in which Trump represents a culmination rather than a repudiation.
Regardless, we are unlikely to revert to the constitutional distance of George Washington. One suspects that the commander-in-chief who forbore handshakes would demur with respect to Twitter. That, too, is done. Still, the exclamation points can give way to periods. The monomaniacal use of the first-person singular can evolve, as can the impulse to respond to the trivial and, even in triumph, to play the victim.
All this must be a prelude to the ultimate responsibility of a chief magistrate, which is often not to give voice to the popular will but rather to resist a popular torrent—to stand against the public impulse in favor of the public interest. The constitutional distance this requires does not mean being a member of an elite. It means being a President.