Did America Elect a King, Rather than a President?

The Boy-Man Who Would Be King, or, The Bawdy Politic

I wondered during the past election why appeals to logic and reason were ineffective when Donald John Trump was compared unfavorably to Hillary Rodham Clinton. When it seemed to me that she scored well in the so-called Presidential Debates, I noticed that Trump supporters were jubilant about their candidate's perceived triumph. Many have bemoaned her many weaknesses, ranging from scandals associated with her husband's presidency to her less-impassioned personality to the failures of global economic policies or to the very fact that she was a woman running against a man. There was also the Bernie Sanders factor, alleging that the Democratic National Committee baited and switched supporters of a popular, more left-leaning populist towards a problematic centrist, with disastrous results. Perhaps they bet on the wrong horse and undermined their own credibility by trying to persuade the public that Hillary was more electable, as they had with John Kerry in 2004. In 2004 and 2016, what seemed like assets--being a war hero, extensive civic resumé, name recognition--were actually held against them.

I did a lot of reading before the election, including E. J. Dionne Jr.'s Why the Right Went Wrong, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson's American Amnesia, Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher's Trump Revealed, and Jane Mayer's Dark Money, all published in 2016. "If only everybody read these, they would know how they're being played," I thought. These books showed how the the extreme right wrested control of the GOP over the past 50 years, abandoning the public/private partnership which Eisenhower had promoted in favor of cultural wars and corporate interests. "How could anyone support Trump if they just read the Washington Post's biography?" I was thinking on Election Day. Needless to say, I didn't spend that much time at the Utah Democrats' bash that night. The drubbing nationwide was too painful to stand and watch on many large screens.

Since the election, I have been reading, among other publications, Sinclair Lewis' It Can't Happen Here (1935), James W. Loewen's Sundown Towns (2006), Ibram X. Kendi's Stamped from the Beginning (2016), Nancy Isenberg's White Trash (2016) and, more recently, J. D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy (2016) and Timothy Snyder's On Tyranny (2017). I have been opening my mind to the persistence of classism and racism in American culture. I realized that segregation and ethnic cleansing, to paraphrase H. Rap Brown, are as American as apple pie. Towns which have actively excluded blacks, Jews, Latinos, Asians, Native Americans from residency--sometimes through ordinances, sometimes through mob violence--are common throughout the US, except in the Southern states. Loewen has shown how the Federal Government through FHA and other entities promoted segregation even under the New Deal. I have not read Richard Rothstein's recent The Color of Law, but this article in Slate provides a good overview. It would be safe to say that, as I learned from Kendi's book, one could be a racist and also against slavery. One could push for minority rights and still oppose having the same minorities as neighbors. Judging by the continuing attachment to the Confederate legacy, absurd when one thinks of the wholesale slaughter of poor white men and boys in defense of the interests of rich Southern planters, one is hard pressed to remember what the Civil War was all about. One would think that the war was really over states' rights, and not over preserving the Union and dismantling a barbarous, cruel, and "peculiar institution." Over 150 years later, it is remarkable that Americans still haven't come to terms with slavery, with the postwar terrorization of blacks and other minorities, with Jim Crow, with the genocidal wars against Native Americans, with the exercise of American imperialism abroad and commission of war crimes. In comparison to the global response to the more recent horrors of apartheid in South Africa, the murderous legacies of fascism and Communism, the bloodied hands of US-backed dictatorships during the Cold War, the massacres in Bosnia and Rwanda, or the more recent atrocities in Syria and Darfur, we remain exceptional in our adolescent insouciance.

One could blame it all on cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias, or the vagaries of collective memory, but one has to understand issues beyond simple denial. Racism and xenophobia have long been part of American identity, even if racial epithets and violence aren't openly expressed. While this last election seems to have brought out more blatant displays of misogyny and white supremacy, as well as wholesale disregard for the Bill of Rights, I think there is something else afoot here. While it is probably a truism that people make choices based upon emotional reactions, and then rationalize them afterward, I think the voters were looking for something else besides someone who appealed to their economic distress, fear of the Other, or ethnocentrism. It was interesting that they voted for such an impious person, compared to the Karl Rove-curated campaigns for the born-again George W. Bush. It seemed like allegations of moral turpitude didn't alienate Trump supporters any more than his apparent lack of political experience. How did such a person with obvious flaws acquire a Teflon sheen to rival Ronald Reagan's?

Here, I resort to scripture. Based upon the Book of Mormon chronology, the brother of Jared expressed foreboding about his people choosing a king, fearing it would lead them into captivity (6:23). His fears, of course, were born out in the subsequent history which Moroni shares with us. Much later, over in the Holy Land, Israel opts for the same in 1 Samuel 8. Samuel the prophet inquires of God and receives a warning, which he shares with the multitudes, to no avail: 

11 And he said, This will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you: He will take your sons, and appoint them for himself, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and some shall run before his chariots.

12 And he will appoint him captains over thousands, and captains over fifties; and will set them to ear his ground, and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and instruments of his chariots.

13 And he will take your daughters to be confectionaries, and to be cooks, and to be bakers.

14 And he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your oliveyards, even the best of them, and give them to his servants.

15 And he will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give to his officers, and to his servants.

16 And he will take your menservants, and your maidservants, and your goodliest young men, and your asses, and put them to his work.

17 He will take the tenth of your sheep: and ye shall be his servants.

18 And ye shall cry out in that day because of your king which ye shall have chosen you; and the Lord will not hear you in that day.

Saul started out good, but had issues, as we learn later. With occasional exceptions, such as David, Solomon, and Josiah, the subsequent history of Israelite rulers was an almost unceasing in terms of palace intrigues, oppression, bloodbaths, and lapses into wholesale idolatry. The kingdom divided, and Assyria, Babylon, Persia, the Greeks and Romans ruled over a people whom Moses had liberated from Egypt centuries before. In between, there were frequent wars with the Philistines, Syrians and others. Why, then, did they stay with regal government?

Before trying to answer this question, I will refer back to The Book of Mormon. King Mosiah, while extolling the virtues of righteous kings in Mosiah 29, reminds his people of what happens when a wicked person becomes king:

16 Now I say unto you, that because all men are not just it is not expedient that ye should have a king or kings to rule over you.

17 For behold, how much iniquity doth one wicked king cause to be committed, yea, and what great destruction!

18 Yea, remember king Noah, his wickedness and his abominations, and also the wickedness and abominations of his people. Behold what great destruction did come upon them; and also because of their iniquities they were brought into bondage.

19 And were it not for the interposition of their all-wise Creator, and this because of their sincere repentance, they must unavoidably remain in bondage until now.

20 But behold, he did deliver them because they did humble themselves before him; and because they cried mightily unto him he did deliver them out of bondage; and thus doth the Lord work with his power in all cases among the children of men, extending the arm of mercy towards them that put their trust in him.

21 And behold, now I say unto you, ye cannot dethrone an iniquitous king save it be through much contention, and the shedding of much blood.

22 For behold, he has his friends in iniquity, and he keepeth his guards about him; and he teareth up the laws of those who have reigned in righteousness before him; and he trampleth under his feet the commandments of God;

23 And he enacteth laws, and sendeth them forth among his people, yea, laws after the manner of his own wickedness; and whosoever doth not obey his laws he causeth to be destroyed; and whosoever doth rebel against him he will send his armies against them to war, and if he can he will destroy them; and thus an unrighteous king doth pervert the ways of all righteousness.

While subsequent Nephite history was still fraught with war and wickedness, at least they didn't suffer under the tyranny of kings, as their leaders were elected judges. By contrast, in the book of Judges in the Hebrew Bible, the anarchic state of affairs chronicled therein was often blamed upon the absence of a king in Israel (17:6, 18:1, 19:1, 21:25). Were the authors making a case for kingship back then?

In any case, history makes clear that absolute rule proves problematic when the monarch does not serve the interests of his subjects. The United States of America set a standard for the world when it successfully overthrew British rule. To be honest, George III wasn't as bad as many of his forebears or peers ruling elsewhere. For example, look at the vicious behavior of many an Asian despot, Roman Emperor, or modern dictator. Perhaps because the American experience wasn't as distasteful as that of other colonies, one could say that the American public has had an odd ambivalence towards aristocracy ever since. Echoing the Greco-Roman fears of tyrants in antiquity, just about every president or person holding high office, as, say Speaker of the House of Representatives, Governor, or even a business magnate, clergyman, or coach, has been alternately accused of overreach, ruthlessness, or pusillanimity. At the same time, Americans admire wealth and opulence, because everyone believes he or she, too, could be rich like that. The lifestyles of the rich and famous are envied. When misfortune strikes a plutocrat, there is either gushing sympathy or ebullient Schadenfreude.

I have meant to explore this topic further in light of, say, the theory that under the divine right of kings, the king has both a physical body and is the embodiment of the state. Kings were thought to have the power of healing. Kings were thought to be permitted access to a virginal bride before the groom was allowed to consummate the marriage. It seems to tie in with the idea that a priest, however sinful in his conduct, is still the representative of Christ and is capable of transforming wafers and wine into the body and blood of Christ. You can't argue with that kind of power. A paterfamilias in Ancient Rome had the power of life and death over the members of his household, so long as he lived. A child wasn't emancipated by adulthood, or marriage. So, I have wondered if Trump's supporters see him in the same way our forebears saw their kings, emperors and other rulers, or the way devout parishioners see their sinful clergy, or loyal fans excuse the misdeeds of performers and athletes. It could be, as I argued before the election, that the electorate has become co-dependent, and won't abandon the one they loved in spite of, or because of, his or her abusiveness.

Jack Olsen, in his book Doc: The Rape of the Town of Lovell (1989), chronicled how a well-known physician in a town in Wyoming got away for years with molesting his female LDS patients because their parents and peers couldn't accept the idea that someone who saved lives could also violate bodies. When a Relief Society president, who had been one of his staunchest defenders, finally grew suspicious, then the tide turned against Dr. Story. I am afraid that we, too, will have to depend upon major GOP leaders to turn against the president, if he is not to remain in office until at least 2021. It is ironic that so many of the GOP defend him, when they publicly chided indulgent liberal parents for years. Liberals supported Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama even when the instigators of the Great Recession were left off the hook, when the escalation in Afghanistan and drone strikes didn't seem to be working, or when other policy decisions and personal scandals seemed to come to light. The right-wing press, and GOP hearings, tried to milk them for all they were worth. Yet, the GOP treats the misdeeds of the White House with the same permissiveness. Conservatives castigated Obama for making public apologies for past American injustices, but seem to be falling all over themselves to excuse one Trump outrage after the next.

One would almost think the level of distrust, misinformation and disinformation being sown is softening people up, that it is applied misdirection to divert public attention from the dreary, day-to-day drudgery that constitutes true governance. Some may like the President because he prefers sensationalism to decorum, that he is "shaking things up", even if it strikes at the very heart of democracy. In terms of getting things done, lynch mobs have always been more productive than the court system, if true justice is not the main goal. The American public for many years has preferred quick-and-dirty news to thoughtful, meticulous, investigative journalism, fictional movies to documentaries, lawsuits to criminal justice, beauty pageants to informed exercise of the voter's franchise. We have decided that we should select heads of state and lawmakers on how telegenic they are, not on their actual experience in public office, especially if they are very wealthy. If not of royal blood, the next best qualification for a king, we have decided, is accumulated wealth, or at least the image of opulence.

I have also thought that Mr. Trump is a useful foil, since so many seem to think that POTUS has almost limitless power. As addicted as he is to attention, good and bad, he diverts attention from what the GOP leadership are really doing, apart from occasional issues like health care, The Wall, or infrastructural investments. They are doing everything they can to dismantle President Obama's legacy.  Replacing Trump won't turn the tide in favor of progressive causes. There are Mike Pence and Paul Ryan to consider as those next in line. Democrats lost ground in both houses of Congress in November 2016. Republicans control many state houses and governorships, with the power to gerrymander congressional districts with every census cycle. Trump's election was just part of a decades-long strategy of building GOP hegemony, generously financed by Charles and David Koch, Sheldon Adelson, the DeVos family, and many other wealthy conservatives, as documented in Jane Mayer's Dark Money. The Democratic brand will take years to recover, barring the emergence of a strong third party to split the vote. Democrats will need lots of money, and an extensive ground game, to undo all the careful, decades-long work of conservatives at local levels.

So, DJT may see himself as a king, and a lot of his base may, too. It won't be the first time that voters have misunderstood Civics 101. What exists as constitutional law, and what people see as law, can be very different entities. People hardly know what their rights are as renters and borrowers, let alone what powers are reserved for separate branches of government. I would recommend becoming better informed about our rights as citizens and working for change on a local level. We can work through NGOs and international bodies to protect human rights, to fight for social justice, and to protect the earth from further environmental degradation, even if our political leadership is hostile, or indifferent, to such issues. We have to take charge as citizens, when we can't pass the buck, when we can't defer just to lobbyists and think tanks. While I could recommend the other books I have cited above, the best short work to look at for now is Timothy Snyder's On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. It serves as both a warning and a call to action. Kingdoms have survived in spite of dissolute kings, and empires have survived in spite of vicious, profligate emperors. Let us just hope that whatever positive change comes of our present leadership does not have to come with the same profusion of blood, as was frequently witnessed by regal and imperial subjects in the past.

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