Did George Washington Predict Donald Trump? (The New York Times link): In September 1796, George Washington, weary of partisan combat just eight years after the ratification of the Constitution and the founding of the nation, wrote a farewell address explaining why he would not seek a third term. His message is worth remembering in our current political moment.
In elaborate and thoughtful prose, Washington raised red flags about disunity, false patriotism, special interests, extreme partisanship, fake news, the national debt, foreign alliances and foreign hatreds. With uncanny foresight, he warned that the most serious threat to our democracy might come from disunity within the country rather than interference from outside. And he foresaw the possibility of foreign influence over our political system and the rise of a president whose ego and avarice would transcend the national interest, raising the threat of despotism.
Washington certainly had great confidence, but in his address he didn’t brag about his accomplishments. On the contrary, he beseeched the Almighty to soften the impact of his errors and expressed hopes that the country would forgive them. He established a standard for presidential self-deprecation out of the fear that a president of grossly inflated ego could become a threat to democracy.
He cautioned against both overly friendly alliances (lest another country’s interests and wars become our own) and excessive hatreds (lest we provoke unnecessary conflict and war with others). Forbearance in the use of power was another of his major themes.
“A free country should inspire caution in those entrusted with its administration, to confine themselves within their respective constitutional spheres, avoiding in the exercise of the powers of one department to encroach upon another,” he declared. Such encroachment, he said, would lead to the consolidation of power and create “a real despotism.”
“Sooner or later,” he concluded, “the chief of some prevailing faction, more able and more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purpose of his own elevation on the ruins of public liberty.”
As if envisioning the political tribalism and 24/7 cable news culture of today, he urged political leaders to restrain “the continual mischiefs” of political parties. The “spirit of party,” he wrote, “serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection.”
Since 1893, a senator has read the farewell address on the floor of the Senate every year on Washington’s Birthday, alternating annually by political party. Bluntly speaking, it’s become little more than an exercise in bipartisan lip service. The House of Representatives stopped reading it decades ago.
This was, at least, a form of honesty. Clearly no one was listening anymore. In 2016, fake news, gerrymandering, voter suppression and disenfranchisement were “the mischiefs” employed by the Republican Party to propel Mr. Trump’s campaign. And Mr. Trump, perhaps “more able and more fortunate than his competitors,” stumbled to victory using mendacious appeals to voters squeezed by a greedy economy — even though Mr. Trump had himself profited handsomely from that economy. If only we had heeded Washington’s warnings, would the election have turned out as it did?
Washington’s goal was to ensure that the young country became stable enough to withstand the threats to liberty and freedom he saw on the horizon — a horizon that has now stretched 220 years into the future. We can never say he didn’t warn us.