Trust and America

President-elect Donald Trump is about to be inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States. Many people feel an anxiety and fear not felt since the election of Abraham Lincoln, whose election led to the secession of the southern states. Why is there such apprehension?

The simple answer is a lack of trust. There were different issues in the 19th century but in both cases a lack of trust has led to fear and anxiety over what the new President might do. Clearly today trust has eroded between Americans and their government, and between Americans who are on opposite sides of politics. What is the origin of this lack of trust?

One might go back to the American Revolution and its lack of trust in civil authority, represented by Great Britain. There has been a certain skepticism of government that dates to that era – which helped form the Constitution with its checks and balances. For those in the South who lost political power, the Civil War was a loss of trust in the Federal government. One could also point to the Vietnam generation that lost confidence in a foolish (or worse) government and a conformist culture.

But there is one specific source of the lack of trust today: the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision of 1973 and a series of decisions since then that set aside the Constitution in favor of a vision of society held by a majority of the Court. These decisions have been exercises in raw judicial power.

Many have written about this and bemoaned the judicial usurpation of politics. The point I’m making here is that the American social contract, the Constitution, has been set aside at significant points since 1973. America does have some traditions and to some extent an unwritten constitution continues. But America is much less traditional than Britain and needs an explicit statement of what binds us together as a nation.

This lawlessness – for that’s what it is – has affected the Presidency, too. President Obama since 2014 has openly bypassed Congress to push his agenda, for example with regulations that have no authorizing legislation behind them.

So today one does not know what limits there are to the Presidency. That may not be seen as a problem if one agrees with the President’s agenda. But that is short-sighted since a new President may arise with a very different agenda. That has indeed happened in the change from Obama to Trump.

It used to be that political opponents would work together for the good of the nation. One cannot assume that any more. The differences are so deep and the limits on power so weak that there’s no telling what could happen.

So there is reason for grave concern, not because of Trump’s brand of politics but because America’s political system is under attack from the one body most charged with defending it – the Supreme Court. The Court must return to the principle that where there is no law, the Court cannot go.