Hold it! Didn’t we fight a revolution in 1776 to see off the scourge of monarchy?
If I’ve got that right, and I pretty sure that I do, then why are so many powerful people whining about the crowd booing Donald Trump at the World Series game on Sunday? Why was Delaware Senator Chris Coons, a member of the Democratic Party that ought to be busying itself with the serious work of checking and balancing manifest examples of executive wrongdoing, complaining on CNN about how “the office of the president deserves respect, even when the actions of our president don’t”?
Coons got it precisely wrong. Americans who respect the office of the president have a duty to call out lawless presidents who abuse the position. They’re not supposed to bow and scrape before the royal throne—in the White House or at baseball stadiums.
The whole point of the American experiment is that we don’t have kings or kaisers or emperors. We have presidents: transitory figures who come and go. They earn our respect or lose it based on their words and deeds. The fact that presidents are elected does not confer upon them immunity from accountability. Thomas Jefferson addressed this matter when he wrote, as the long Revolutionary War was finally concluding: “An elective despotism was not the government we fought for…”
Tom Paine preached that “so far as we approve of monarchy…in America the law is king.” And impeachment is the guarantor of the rule of law. As George Mason explained to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, “No point is of more importance than that the right of impeachment should be continued.” It was, counseled Mason, the answer to the essential questions: “Shall any man be above Justice? Above all shall that man be above it, who can commit the most extensive injustice?”
In practical terms, what this means is that when the actions of a president are sufficiently foul, and when that foulness is confirmed by notable service members and diplomats, we the people can demand that our legislative representatives remove that president from his temporary sinecure via the process of impeachment—and boos come with the territory. When an indefensible president has been removed from office and a determination has been made that he has violated our laws, then that former president can and should be jailed. Despite all the imperial trappings that have attached to the office, the crowd at Nationals Park in Washington, DC, remembered that presidents are not the masters of the people but, rather, the servants.
So when those baseball fans erupted in robust booing and chants at the mention of the president’s presence, that was a healthy assertion of an American ideal that has too frequently been neglected—not a sign of degenerating civility. Law professor Jennifer Taub got it right when she observed amid the ruckus: “Speaking truth to power. As American as baseball and apple pie…” I’ll admit that I would have preferred that the baseball fans had chanted “Impeach Donald Trump,” which to my ear sounds more lyrical than the “Lock him up!” language that many in the crowd appropriated from our bombastic president. But that’s their choice. And their right. They are, after all, the people—not political rivals but the great mass of voters (and potential voters) from whom power is supposed to extend in a representative democracy.
What’s unsettling is that political and media elites imagined that booing and calls for accountability should be seen as wrong, or unsettling, rather than a spontaneous embrace of constitutional governance and the rule of law by patriots. MSNBC host Joe Scarborough was particularly upset that citizens had turned Trump’s language on Trump. Referring to the chants as “sickening” and “un-American,” Scarborough said, “We are Americans and we do not do that. We do not want the world hearing us chant ‘lock him up’ to this president or to any president.” Coons was equally perturbed. “Well, forgive me,” the senator chirped on Monday morning:
I’m enough of a sort of traditionalist about our institutions that even at a time when there is a lot that our president does that I find disturbing, offensive, unconventional, I have a hard time with the idea of a crowd on a globally televised sporting event chanting “lock him up” about our president.
Coons told CNN, “It reminds me of things that happen in countries where rule of law is unknown or unestablished…”
Seriously? It is because the rule of law is known and established that Americans feel comfortable confronting errant executives and holding them to account. If we lose that confidence in the face of authority, if we imagine that presidents should be accorded obsequious regard, then the republic is surely doomed.
Thomas Jefferson was an imperfect founding father, as he readily acknowledged. It was because of his awareness of his imperfections that Jefferson warned of the prospect that even elected leaders might be corrupted. It is for this reason that he reminded James Madison that
Above all things I hope the education of the common people will be attended to; convinced that on their good sense we may rely with the most security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty.
There will always be elites who fret about a supposed “loss of civility” or who warn ominously, as does CNN’s Chris Cillizza, that “there are consequences to accepting and internalizing the lowered standards [Trump] has pushed into our public sphere.” But that is a bizarre misread of our current circumstance. Yes, of course, presidents should embrace higher standards than Trump has. But when presidents shame themselves and their country, Americans ought not to quietly sip their British East India Company tea and whisper “tut-tut.” Americans should toss the tea overboard and proudly boo any tenant of the Oval Office who displays the contemptible tendencies of a monarch.