“XXX.–In the government of this Commonwealth, the legislative department shall never exercise the executive and judicial powers, or either of them: The executive shall never exercise the legislative and judicial powers, or either of them: The judicial shall never exercise the legislative and executive powers, or either of them: to the end it may be a government of laws and not of men.”
With these words, set into the Bill of Rights of the Constitution of the State of Massachusetts in 1780, John Adams captured one of the pillars of the American form of government. In revolting against England, Americans did not merely reject King George III. They rejected the entire system of government by a single person or group. This principle of a government of laws and not men is the natural consequence of the founding American ideal that all human beings are born equal and endowed with inalienable rights. It is a critical point, but one that is easily missed.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all human beings are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among them are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…” That statement announces a community based, not on individual license, but on a fundamental responsibility of every human being for every other human being. We are each responsible for honoring the rights of each of our fellow humans, and that responsibility is what gives us our meaning, and it is even the source of our freedom. We are free because all those people for whom I am responsible are responsible for me.
The enemy of America’s founding ideal rests precisely here. When a government makes its decisions, not based on the laws of that government but rather by the orders of a single person or group, the source of the people’s meaning shifts from the ideals embodied in their laws and constitution to the personal needs and desires of the person or group ruling them. “L’etat c’est moi,” said the imperious Louis XIV. I am the state, and your rights, and therefore your meaning, are defined entirely by me. This is the real peril of dictatorship. The individual has no meaning by himself or herself. Even the dictator’s meaning is gone, because it is completely subjective. It might be something one day and something else another. Moral value derived from one individual is the morality of self-interest, and self-interest is no morality at all.
This is the real, fundamental crisis being caused by Trump’s actions and words. He may or may not have overstepped his bounds with the ban on seven Muslim countries. We have a judiciary to determine that in accordance with the laws and constitutional provisions that express our journey to our ideal. It is what he did in response to that judiciary, and what his people have done in response to criticism, that is far, far more dangerous. He denigrates the judiciary, calls a judge bigoted or characterizes the judge as “so-called”. His advisor tells the press to “shut up and listen.” All this and much, much more describes an attack on the fundamental rights of the people and the checks and balances system that guards those rights. Trump doesn’t want to befriend Putin. He wants to be Putin. His goal is dictatorship, and if he succeeds we will not just lose our form of government, we will lose our very meaning.
We are not a perfect nation. Our worth and meaning lie in the fact that, with all our flaws and failures, we strive for a perfect ideal. The actions and words of Trump and his representatives signal an attack on those ideals. We cannot allow that attack to even begin.