“A Republic… If You Can Keep It”

As we’ve seen throughout this campaign, Donald Trump has a rather strange affection for dictators given that he is running to be president of a democratic republic. In case you need a refresher course, here you go:

Last night during the debate, Trump said several things that indicate he is pretty clueless about how our democracy works. For example, as both he and his campaign surrogates have been doing lately, Trump accused Clinton of not accomplishing anything over her time in public life these last 30 years. Here is how that played out in a discussion about the tax code and carried interest:

CLINTON: Well, here we go again. I’ve been in favor of getting rid of carried interest for years, starting when I was a senator from New York. But that’s not the point here.

TRUMP: Why didn’t you do it? Why didn’t you do it?

COOPER: Allow her to respond.

CLINTON: Because I was a senator with a Republican president…

TRUMP: You could have done it, if you were an effective – if you were an effective senator, you could have done it. If you were an effective senator, you could have done it. But you were not an effective senator.

COOPER: Please allow her to respond. She didn’t interrupt you.

CLINTON: You know, under our Constitution, presidents have something called veto power.

Back when the Trump campaign came out with a policy on maternity leave, I was struck by how Ivanka Trump talked about this. First of all, she suggested that Hillary Clinton has been in public office for the last several decades, rather than referring to her eight years as a Senator from New York. But the language Ivanka used after that was interesting. She said that Clinton could have “instituted” some of these policies and hasn’t done so. That sounds like language more fitting for a CEO (or dictator) than a member of Congress.

Perhaps even more disturbing was when Trump said this last night:

…if I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation, because there has never been so many lies, so much deception. There has never been anything like it, and we’re going to have a special prosecutor.

Our former Attorney General responded to that on twitter.

When Clinton said something similar, Trump went even farther.

That’s what dictators do. In more benevolent terms, it is what CEOs do. There is a reason why Trump made a name for himself on reality TV with the declaration, “You’re fired.” When you are the CEO of a major corporation, it is possible to have dictatorial powers. That is the world Donald Trump inhabits.

But let’s be honest, this is the kind of understanding of politics that has taken over the Republican Party. They love leaders like Chris Christie, Scott Walker and Rick Scott who, as governors, have often behaved as CEOs (or dictators). I remember back in early 2011 when that approach created problems for Governor Scott.

Rick Scott, the conservative Republican billionaire who plucked the governor’s job from the party establishment in November with $73 million of his own money and the backing of the Tea Party, vowed during his campaign to run the troubled state like a corporate chief executive (which he was) and not a politician (which he proudly says he is not).

And now it has become a problem, some of his fellow Republicans say.

“The governor doesn’t understand there is a State Constitution and that we have three branches of government,” said State Senator Mike Fasano, a Republican from New Port Richey who upset Mr. Scott with rough handling of his staff during a testy committee hearing. “They are talking about the attitude that he is still the C.E.O. of his former health care corporation, and that is not going to work in this state, in Tallahassee, in my district. The people believe in three branches of government.”

This is one of the reasons the GOP base loves Donald Trump and his business background. They have been told for years that those are the skills we need in a president. Beyond that, elected leaders like Sen. Ted Cruz and the House Freedom Caucus have spent years trashing their party’s leadership for not taking control of Congress and doing their bidding.  Their voters have no interest in the messy work of compromise and governing. In their view, you take what you want or you blow the place up…damn the consequences.

It strikes me that perhaps the entire country needs a refresher course in what it means to live in a democratic republic. Never has Benjamin Franklin’s warning felt more prescient.

At the close of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Franklin was queried as he left Independence Hall on the final day of deliberation. In the notes of Dr. James McHenry, one of Maryland’s delegates to the Convention, a lady asked Dr. Franklin: “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin replied, “A republic . . . if you can keep it.”

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.