After chasing all those tea-swilling Red Coats out of America’s beeswax, the Founding Fathers took a good look at the country they’d just created and immediately got a serious case of the fantods. The economy was in the toilet, the states were at each other’s throats, and three European powers (the Spanish, French and Brits) were industriously conniving to swindle the Yanks out of their inheritance if not their independence. Trail bossing the new nation through these shoals was Congress, a dog’s breakfast of parochialism and pusillanimity held together by silk breeches, bad wigs, and dodgy IOUs. To put it mildly, things were complicated.
One of things driving the deep thinkers batty was the insistence by a large number of their fellow Americans that, all evidence to the contrary, democracy had simple answers to these complex problems. In some quarters, the universal salve proposed for any vexation of state was a populist poultice moistened with gallons of rhetorical incontinence. Just do what the majority wanted and, yada, yada, yada, problem solved. Some saw this faith in democracy as touchingly guileless. Big time Founding Parental Units like James Madison and Alexander Hamilton viewed it as base political quackery that needed to be squashed before it led to a serious migraine. They understood that politics is complex and convoluted, that democratic politics is tougher than acing the SAT, and that majorities frequently not only have no superior claim on wisdom but are often dumber than dirt. Making sure the grownups got to handle the complex problems with due diligence and rational thought while making good on the guarantee of popular sovereignty clearly required some delicate institutional finessing.
That sort of deft touch wasn’t much in evidence from state governments, who at the time were busy duking it out for the hotly contested title of Best Populist Suck Up of 1786 (Rhode Island won). After the Brits skulked off to Canada and took the royal prerogative with them, states had enthusiastically begun drafting constitutions. In practice this meant a lot of power-to-the-people fan boys putting quill to parchment and designing governments that made pretty much any serious thinking republican feel like soiling their breeches. Charles Carroll—best remembered as the last signatory of the Declaration of Independence to pop his clogs—examined a good deal of this fluff and flummery and concluded some lawmakers clearly were wearing their wigs too tight. In his judgement states were building “simple democracies,” governments set up more to function as the bowels of a republic rather than its heart or its brain. In other words, governments dominated by legislatures that would do little more than noisily masticate and pass through whatever crap the populace had just swallowed. Carroll concluded the only logical end to that sort of process was a big stink. Simple democracies, he declared, are, “of all governments the worst, and will end as other democracies have, in despotism.”
Luckily for us, in 1787 a group of know-it-all bluestockings managed to do something about all this at the national level, pulling off a remarkable feat of political engineering called the United States Constitution. This has served as a pretty reliable institutional prophylactic against the virulence of “simple democracy.” It does this by making it infuriatingly complicated for the government to actually do anything. It is so complicated that even if populist piffle pushers manage to get elected they’ll find themselves unable translate their vacuous brain farts into legislation without first going through a serious learning curve. Chances are that while going through that process they’ll wise up and realize they should back off of following through on the moonshine they promised voters before it does any lasting harm. These institutional training wheels are far from infallible, though. And there still exists in the American populace a deeply held conviction that if government could just get out of the way, we could fix problems sans muss and sans fuss. This is at least partly how we ended up with Donald Trump in office, who ran on a promise that most problems had simple fixes. Build a wall, drop a bomb, cut a deal, and yada, yada, yada, America is great again.
Of late, though, he seems to be revising upward the estimated difficulty of, you know, actually governing. Just to mention a few examples, in the last few weeks the president has said “nobody knew health care could be this complicated,” admitted he just “learned about some very arcane rules in … both the Senate and the House,” shifted gears on North Korea because after a 10-minute chat with the Chinese president “I realized it’s not so easy,” decided that staying out of Syria really wasn’t an option, that NATO wasn’t all mooching excess baggage, and that forcing China to stop manipulating its currency wasn’t going to work because he just found out they stopped doing that years ago. Oh yeah, and the sweeping tax reform plan set to be unveiled months ago is nowhere to be seen because apparently writing a sweeping tax reform plan is harder than saying you have a sweeping tax reform plan.
The Trump game plan is flipping quicker than pancakes at a waffle house and flopping faster than an Italian soccer team. There’s a couple of ways to look at this. A lot of Trump supporters are not happy. And no wonder. The reality of governing makes all presidents deviate from the path promised on the campaign trail, but Trump is off-roading so far from his plotted course it’s starting to look like he lost his GPS (if had one to begin with). He was elected to end Obamacare, drain the swamp, cock the snoot at irksome furriners – from North Korean tin-pot tyrants to European NATO deadbeats to Mexican bad hombres— and put America first. His bellyaching that this is all harder than he thought isn’t cutting the mustard with his base. And that’s understandable. Trumpinistas haven’t got much choice but to double down on the bet that these problems still have simple fixes that do not require political experience, political knowledge, or, heck, even basic political sentience. If stuff really is that complicated, then they just elected someone gobsmackingly unqualified to deal with the issues besetting the republic and have put the national interest at serious risk. Madison, Hamilton and Carroll spoke to exactly this sort of situation in their famous “No shit, Sherlock” joint declaration on pinhead populism. Okay, I can’t back that up, but I’m pretty sure I got the sentiment right.
The president seems to be going through a dawning realization that his easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy promises are just piffle and prattle of the lowest order. The learning curve has begun. At least, let’s hope that’s what’s happening. I say let the Trumpkins mutter of establishment illuminati plotting to remove their beautiful comb-over Rapunzel from his alt-right tower of alternative-facts and re-accommodate him in the real world. The rest of us should welcome these developments. Things are complicated—very complicated—and the farther we can get from the simple democracy thinking that put Trump in office the more distance we put between us and despotism.