A Republic, If We Can Keep It: The Founders vs. 'Emperor Obama'

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21 November 2014
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Our American Future
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As “Emperor Obama”—to cite a title applied to Barack Obama by House Speaker John BoehnerSenator Jeff Sessions, and others—proceeds with his plan to trample the Constitution by issuing an Executive Order on amnesty for illegals, perhaps it’s worth looking back to see how the authors of the Constitution might have reacted to such a crisis. 

The short answer is that the Founders worried about presidential power-grabbing, and so wrote a proper response into the Constitution. However, the longer answer is that Emperor Obama might be setting in motion a process that actually undermines the Constitution. Although he was defeated at the polls in 2014, Obama could be initiating a process that consolidates Democratic power for the rest of the century.

In Philadelphia, in 1787, Benjamin Franklin was asked what sort of government the just-completed Constitutional Convention, presided over by George Washington, had created. “A republic,” he replied. Then the great patriot quickly added, “If you can keep it.” 

And that was the key point: If Americans can keep it. The following year, 1788, James Madison wrote in Federalist #51, arguing for the ratification of the Constitution, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” But since men are not angels, Madison continued, it was necessary to create a Constitutional system of checks and balances; as Madison put it, “divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other.” 

Yet where would ultimate power reside? In any kind of Constitutional showdown which of the “several offices” would be decisive? Would it be the executive branch? The judicial branch? The legislative branch? In the same Federalist #51, Madison had a ready answer: “In republican government, the legislative authority necessarily predominates.”

The Founders were quite deliberate in their determination to restrict executive power, and for a very good reason: They knew their history. They fully expected that some future American president would seek to upend the Constitutional order by seeking to concentrate power in the executive branch.

The Founders had a word for it: Caesarism...

To the Founders, Julius Caesar was a figure to be feared: He extinguished the Roman Republic. A successful general in foreign military campaigns, Caesar decided that he liked being a dictator. So he brought the war home to Rome; in 50 BC he launched a bloody civil war to consolidate his dictatorship. And so, 1800 years later, the “ism”—that is, Caesarism—was still to be guarded against.

The Founders were steeped in history, and they sought particular meaning in classical allusions, which they knew would resonate with readers and listeners. As a result, they often took Roman pen names, including Cato, Publius, Agrippa, and, perhaps most poignantly, Brutus.

That would be Marcus Junius Brutus the Younger, who helped assassinate Julius Caesar in 44 BC...

Once again, the Founders did not believe in assassination. However, as Cornell Law School professor Josh Chafetz has explained, Franklin and the other Founders were eager to see impeachment provisions inserted into the new Constitution, precisely because they wanted to fend off any possible murderous impulses; that is, they hoped that the legal proceeding of impeachment would take the place of the illegal act of murder...

Yet in the 20th century, the presidency gained enormous power. In 1959, the conservative historian and journalist James Burnham published a worried tome, Congress and the American Tradition, lamenting the rise of presidential power since Franklin D. Roosevelt in the New Deal. The “soaring executive,” wrote Burnham, brought with him the risk of Caesarism...

And so here we are today, in 2014: President Obama, having lost the House in 2010 and the Senate in 2014, is now issuing a sweeping Executive Order, effectively suspending immigration-law enforcement. In so doing, he is belatedly doing something that he himself has said, on at least 22 occasions, that he didn’t have the authority to do. 

In addition, Obama lacks popular support for his initiative; an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows that a clear plurality of Americans oppose his plan

In other words, as he issues his Executive Order, he is practicing Caesarism ... of a peculiarly weak kind: He has no majority, either on Capitol Hill or among the general public...

Yet Emperor Obama still has a card to play—a card way outside of the Constitution. And that card is the demographic card. 

As Charles Krauthammer said on Fox News tonight, Obama’s Executive Order is an open invitation to the teeming masses around the world: If they can get to the US, most likely, they will be able to stay. And, as Breitbart NewsMatthew Boyle has pointed out, those that are here will likely receive government benefits; in other words, we are paying people to come here illegally.

So the Obama immigration order can be seen as a demographic play: Not only does the venture solidify the Democratic base, but it also offers the prospect of expanding that base, by bringing in new immigrants, whom the Democrats obviously hope, one way or another, will be able to vote. (And even if they can’t vote, their mere presence on US soil will change the composition of Congress through reapportionment.) ...

Today, in the 21st century, it’s our job to assess the new threat to our Constitution, and to make a new strategy to preserve and defend it.