On Sept. 18, 1986, President Cory Aquino addressed the members of the US Congress during their joint session. Said she: “Three years ago, I said thank you, America, for the haven from oppression… you gave Ninoy, myself and our children. Today, I say, join us, America, as we build a new home for democracy, another haven for the oppressed, so it may stand as a shining testament of our two nation’s commitment to freedom.”
Never again will a Filipino do the Cory Aquino act of asking America to join us in restoring democracy in our country. The citadel of democracy that America was for 240 years has imploded. The American brand of democracy has become the laughing stock of the free world. China, the object of President Donald Trump’s insults, has called America, which hailed the protest rallies in Hong Kong, a hypocrite.
Prior to the elections of 2020, America was universally considered the stronghold of the institution of democracy and a sanctuary of the democratic process and its values. Trump’s post-election antics made the world see America as an authoritarian state ruled by an egotistical but incompetent and boorish man.
The day after Trump’s inauguration as president, Peter Wehner of The New York Times wrote in his column, “He is unlikely to be contained by norms and customs, or even by laws and the Constitution.” In the four years he has been president, Trump proved Wehner right.
He has shown himself as a norm-busting president without parallel in American history.
He has told many lies in public; contradicted Cabinet officials many times; attacked the courts, the press, his predecessor, his former electoral opponent, members of his party, the intelligence community, and even his own attorney general; shown indifference to codes of ethics; interjected a political element into apolitical events; monetized the presidency by linking it to his personal business interests; failed to release his tax returns; and engaged in crude behavior in public.
Early into his presidency, an ABC News/Washington Post poll asked 1,002 respondents this question: “What ONE WORD best describes your impression of Trump?” Some of the words given most often were: incompetent, arrogant, strong, idiot, egotistical, ignorant, great, racist, “a—,” and narcissistic.
In the months leading up to the November 2020 election, Trump repeatedly said that he could only lose to Joe Biden if the election was rigged. He told reporters: “We want to make sure the election is honest, and I’m not sure that it can be.” He also declared, “Either I win the election or I delegitimize the election.” That he has been trying hard to accomplish to this day. He has refused to accept defeat and continues to undermine the legitimacy of the electoral process, shattering yet another norm. He has spent the past months claiming electoral fraud but he has failed to back up his claim. Ironically, Trump himself likened the United States to Third World countries where electoral fraud comes with the territory, alleging without presenting evidence that the recent US election was rigged.
Having failed to get Republican state commissioners of election to overturn the results of the election in their state, he sent thousands of thugs to the Capitol on Jan. 6 to intimidate members of both houses of Congress to object to the confirmation of Joe Biden as the duly elected president. January 6, 2021 will go down in American history as DDD, the Day Democracy Died.
The framers of the Constitution of the United States of American didn’t want their supreme leader to be called King after having revolted against one. At the same time, they wanted their leader to have power much like a king has. So, they created the position of President and vested it with executive power without defining the term.
What has happened is that the position of President, which really means “one who presides over people,” is defined largely by the competence and the character of the person holding the office.
In the Foreword of the 12th edition of the book The Presidents of the United States of America, President George H.W. Bush wrote: “Until that ceremony (swearing in of George Washington as president on April 30, 1789), the American Presidency had been only a concept developed by the new Nation’s Founding Fathers at the Constitutional Convention that was held in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787. It remained for George Washington to define the role of the chief executive of the new Nation, not simply in legal but also in symbolic terms.
“From our modern perspective, this task might not seem to be so difficult. Article II of the Constitution spelled out the President’s powers and responsibilities; but beyond that, the concept of the Presidency was so vague.
“George Washington helped define the office of President of the United States. It was a task that has been taken on by each of his successors. Every man taking the oath Washington took in New York 200 years ago has understood, as historian Bruce Catton wrote, that ‘he was acting for something much bigger’ than personal ambition.”
John Adams, the second president of the United States, arrived in Washington DC, the newly created capital of the new nation, on Nov. 1, 1800, just before the election, to take up residence in the still unfinished White House. According to a biographical sketch of Adams, he wrote his wife on his second evening in the presidential residence: “I pray Heaven to bestow the best of Blessings on this House and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise Men ever rule under this roof.” Trump is the antithesis of what Adams prayed for.
Adams lost by only a few electoral votes to Thomas Jefferson. He transferred power to Jefferson and vacated the White House without any fuss. Other men, much greater than Trump, abided by the electoral process.
In the presidential election of 1824, Andrew Jackson, a national hero having defeated the British in New Orleans during the War of 1812 against the British, was ahead of John Quincy Adams (son of the second president) and Henry Clay in both the popular and electoral votes. But since no candidate had a majority of electoral votes, the election was decided among the three by the House of Representatives. Clay, a member of the House, threw his support to Adams. Upon becoming president, Adams appointed Clay as Secretary of State. Jackson accused his two adversaries of entering into a “corrupt bargain.” Instead of ranting that the election was stolen, Jackson immediately launched his campaign to wrest the presidency from Adams in the next election.
New York Governor Samuel J. Tilden ran as the Democrats’ candidate for president in 1876. He won over Ohio Governor Rutherford B. Hayes, the Republican candidate, in the popular vote by over 250,000 votes. But Hayes’ supporters contested the electoral votes in three states. Congress created a commission of eight Republicans and seven Democrats to decide the dispute. All commissioners voted according to party line. Tilden accepted the decision.
President Grover Cleveland ran for re-election in 1888. Although he won in the popular vote, he lost to Benjamin Harrison in the Electoral College. Instead of holding on to the presidency, he willingly transferred power to Harrison. He ran again in 1892 and got back the presidency.
In 2000, Vice-President Al Gore ran as the Democrats’ candidate for president. He won the popular vote but lost the electoral vote, 271-266, to Texas Governor George W. Bush, the Republican standard bearer. Gore contested the automated ballots cast in Florida. The US Supreme Court, voting 5-4, rejected a manual recount of the ballots with errors, giving Bush the margin in the electoral votes. The Supreme Court decision was considered biased in favor of the Republican candidate Bush. The governor of Florida was Jeb Bush, George’s brother. The head of the Florida electoral commission was a Cabinet member appointed by Jeb Bush. The five justices who voted to reject the manual recount were appointees of Republican presidents.
Just the same, Gore accepted the decision. The manual recount would have taken many months. Neither Gore nor Bush would have been sworn in as president on Jan. 20, 2000. The United States would have had no president for months. To Gore, the survival of the nation’s democratic institutions was more important than his personal ambition.
In 2016, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton won over Donald J. Trump by a little less than three million votes in the popular vote but lost in the Electoral College to Trump, 232-306. Trump boasted he won by a landslide in the electoral vote. Clinton conceded defeat the day after election, ominously asking Trump to hold fast to American values. In his re-election bid last year, Trump lost to former Vice-President Joe Biden in both the popular vote and electoral vote. Biden beat him by more than seven million votes in the popular vote and garnered 306 votes to Trump’s 232 in the Electoral College. To use Trump’s own word, Biden scored a landslide victory.
But Trump’s personal interests are greater than the survival of the nation’s democratic institutions. The 6th of January will be remembered not by Americans alone but by the whole world as the 4th of July is remembered by the whole world. Or will the 20th of January be more memorable?
Oscar P. Lagman, Jr. is a retired corporate executive, business consultant, and management professor. He has been a politicized citizen since his college days in the late 1950s.