On two occasions this past week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi invoked Benjamin Franklin to validate the necessity of an impeachment inquiry to determine whether Donald Trump has committed “high crimes and misdemeanors” worthy of removal from office. The specific incident to which she referred was his response to a question upon adoption of the the United States Constitution, “Have you created a monarchy or a republic?” Franklin’s reply? “A republic if you can keep it.”
Call me a skeptic, but more than once in the recent annuls of political discourse, the words of the nation’s founding fathers have been twisted or, in some cases, manufactured to fit the needs of those who want history, real or imagined, to justify their actions. So, I Googled Franklin’s words and the first hit was a commentary on the political process by Dr. Matthew Spalding on the website of that bastion of liberal propaganda (drum roll) The Heritage Foundation.
His July 2002 essay (conveniently for my purposes) titled “A Republic If You Can Keep It” begins with an almost verbatim transcript of Pelosi’s retelling of Franklin’s warning. (Forget treason, I am surprised Trump has not demanded Pelosi resign as Speaker for committing plagiarism.) Dr. Spalding goes one step farther.
But what the American Founders did not do-could not do-was guarantee the success of their creation. Franklin and the other Founders knew that their experiment depended on future generations, which meant the education of future citizens. “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization,” Thomas Jefferson once warned, “it expects what never was-and never will be.”
Yet something else is happening in America. On today’s edition of Morning Joe, John Meacham, Rogers Chair in the American Presidency at Vanderbilt University and a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, suggested that knowledge loses its power if seen through an already biased prism. He quoted the late political commentator and fellow Pulitzer laureate Walter Lippmann.
For the most part we do not first see, and then define, we define first and then see. In the great blooming, buzzing confusion of the outer world we pick out what our culture has already defined for us, and we tend to perceive that which we have picked out in the form stereotyped for us by our culture.
Separated by centuries, Franklin and Lippmann have come together in a time warp to define the challenge we face in the months ahead. “Poor Richard” reminds us the future of American democracy is not housed in some monolithic entity. Its power comes from the distributed energy of millions of individuals, much like Skype which connects the capacity of an assemblage of devices under the control of Skype users. In other words, the motto E Pluribus Unum refers not only to the diverse makeup of our population, but the civic obligation of every American (the pluribus) to uphold the ideals contained in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution (the unum)
That would be tough enough if our understanding of current events was filtered through a cultural consensus, a prism with only one wavelength. But, as we are too well aware, tribal factions, which as Lippmann points out define the way we see the world, explain how there can be two polar opposite interpretations of a partial transcript of a conversation between Trump and Ukraine President Zelensky.
I believe the question before us is not only, “Did Trump violate the explicit oath of office he took on January 20, 2017?” Have we also, as citizens, violated the implicit oath to which we are bound by the phrase E Pluribus Unum? When any occupant of the White House declares he or she “has an absolute right” to do anything (as Trump tweeted last night), have we betrayed the founding fathers because we have put ourselves (ME) above the singular principle of individual sovereignty on which America is based (UNUM)? Have we become traitors when we put the promise of tax cuts and conservative judges above honoring the Constitution? Do we dishonor Franklin, Jefferson, Adams and Hamilton when we place our allegiance in an individual, any individual, over the words and principles which have sustained our country for 232 years?
I can only imagine the following exchange between Benjamin Franklin and CNN’s Chris Cuomo.
CUOMO: Mr. Franklin, based on what Donald Trump tweeted last night, do we still have a republic or is the United States becoming a monarchy?
FRANKLIN: Chris, I’ll give you the same response Beto O’Rourke gave reporters when asked if Trump’s rhetoric was a factor in the wake of last August’s El Paso shooting. Why are you asking me when you already know the answer? Connect the dots.
For what it’s worth.