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December 15, 2018

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Of presidents and the power of the people

Since our nation’s founding more than two centuries ago, successful democratic self-governance has been linked strongly to the idea of a well-informed public. The former, our founders believed, could not exist without the latter. “A people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives,” wrote James Madison, America’s fourth president and father of our Constitution.

Let’s consider how far President Donald Trump has strayed from that founding ideal.

While Trump is otherwise quite obsessed with power, he seems decidedly uninterested in the power of knowledge. He is renowned for his disinterest in reading, even for core aspects of his job. Trump insists on one-page policy memos with an emphasis on visual aids. According to three sources familiar with his briefings, “He rarely if ever reads the President’s Daily Brief, a document that lays out the most pressing information collected by U.S. intelligence agencies from hot spots around the world.”

Worse still, the president’s routine dishonesty — amplified by right-wing voices in a Trumpian media echo chamber — gnaws through our shared set of public facts.

Perhaps the avatar of this moment’s fraught relationship with facts is Michael Wolff’s controversial book, “Fire and Fury,” which directs more attention to Trump’s intellectual habits. Much of the book has been subject to withering criticism, but in the Trump era, that is almost beside the point. Trump’s own loose approach to the truth is leveraged against him by Wolff, leaving the reader to decide what stories to believe or discount.

An example from the 2016 campaign is instructive: Wolff writes that Trump adviser Sam Nunberg was asked to familiarize candidate Trump with the Constitution. Nunberg told Wolff that he tried but, “I got as far as the Fourth Amendment before (Trump’s) finger is pulling down on his lip and his eyes are rolling back in his head.”

Trump’s view of the Constitution, according to Wolff and Nunberg? Boooooring. Sure, he swore to “preserve, protect and defend” our nation’s charter on Inauguration Day, but apparently it is too much to ask for him to have actually read it.

But one doesn’t need to believe a gossipy book to see that the leader of the free world takes little interest in learning about America’s bedrock constitutional principles. Trump himself, remember, promised Republican members of Congress to protect Article XII of the Constitution. Reaction from conservative South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford transcended ideology. “I wasn’t particularly impressed,” Sanford said, understandably. “There is no Article XII.”

Given comments like that from Trump during the election, followed by his disregard as president for eliminating his copious conflicts of interest — as well as his official actions toward Muslims, African-Americans, women and immigrants — it is not unreasonable to conclude that Trump cares little about our Constitution. That is worse than a shame. It is a disgrace.

The good news, however, is that “We the People” have power of our own.

Though the president is the most obvious single head of our constitutional democracy, it is the ordinary citizens of our country who established our Constitution and remain in charge of its care and feeding. The preamble to the Constitution makes clear that it is “We the People” who “ordain and establish this Constitution,” and it has been “We the People” who have amended and adapted the Constitution over time to be more equal, more inclusive, and more just.

While the Constitution’s text endures, each generation of Americans must renew our commitment to those written words. We choose whether we remain true to its values and its mandates. We read it, apply it, and pin our generation’s particular hopes and dreams on its sweeping proclamations of equal justice and freedom for all.

Even if Trump doesn’t care to read and respect the Constitution, we ordinary Americans can arm ourselves with knowledge of our rights and liberties and expect our government to function. Abraham Lincoln believed that, for every citizen, an appreciation of “the value of our free institutions” was “an object of vital importance” — if America’s president doesn’t appreciate our democratic institutions, that makes our duty even more important.

Americans expect our presidents to be respectful stewards of the Constitution. Sadly, today that is not the case. But because our nation’s founding charter ultimately puts stewardship in the hands of the people, we need only rely on one another and our own commitment to equality and justice to ensure that these founding principles thrive no matter who the president is, today and in the decades to come.

Elizabeth Wydra is president of Constitutional Accountability Center, a public interest law firm and think tank dedicated to promoting the promise of the Constitution’s text and history. She wrote this for InsideSources.com.