Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Donald Trump and the Declaration of Independence

Mark Graber

The Declaration of Independence occupies a far smaller place in Donald Trump’s public rhetoric than in the public rhetoric of any other modern president.  Presidential references to the Declaration of Independence or presidential quotations of such phrases as “all men are created equal” rose steadily from 1933 to 2016, in part because presidents gave an increasing number of recorded speeches and issued an increasing number of public proclamations.  President Barack Obama mentioned or quoted from the Declaration of Independence an average of 31 times a year when he was in office.  Donald Trump, on a generous interpretation, mentioned or quoted the Declaration only 15 times during his first year in office, despite producing as much paper as any other president.  Unlike past presidents, the phrase “consent of the governed” never drips from his tongue, he never mentions “self-evident truths,” and barely makes reference to “inalienable rights.”

Trump’s use of the Declaration is far more vacuous than any other contemporary president.  All presidents make symbolic use of the Declaration.  German-American Day proclamations note the signers of the Declaration born in Germany.  Nevertheless, all modern presidents before Trump put the Declaration at the heart of crucial policy arguments.  The second president George Bush repeatedly invoked the Declaration when arguing against abortion rights and distinguishing American commitments to universal human rights from the commitments of nations in the “axis of evil.”  Obama repeatedly invoked the Declaration when argument for gay rights, economic equality and the rights of immigrants.  All presidents since Franklin Roosevelt repeatedly asserted the centrality of the Declaration to American national identity.  Trump’s references to the Declaration, by comparison, are largely pro forma.  He does not mention that American identity is defined by commitment to the principles stated in Jefferson’s second paragraph.  He rarely refers to the Declaration when making arguments for particular policies.  Trump makes substantive references to the Declaration only when claiming Jefferson’s reference to “Creator” supports the presence of religion in public life.

Whether the Declaration remains a revolutionary document in the United States seemed doubtful before Trump took office. The Declaration’s assertion that the point of government was to protect individual rights, promote equality and serve the public good was highly contested in 1776.  Many people then thought the point of government was to protect the interests of a few families, promote the one true religion, serve the master race or rule the world.  By the end of the twentieth century, however, most Americans rested comfortable in the notion that the Declaration had won the day, that arguments about the purpose of government concerned how best to protect individual rights, promote equality and serve the public good, not whether government ought to pursue different ends.  This agreement on what might be called liberal/republican constitutional ends, explains why both Republicans and Democrats in the White House each made free use of the Declaration when championed their particular version of liberal republican constitutionalism.  The Declaration did not take sides in public debate prior to 2016, because all participants agreed on the Declaration's understanding of legitimate constitutional ends. 

Donald Trump’s public indifference to the Declaration suggests that this consensus on the purposes of government is not as broad as Americans might have thought during the Bush II and Obama presidencies.  Trump’s rare and vacuous references to Jefferson’s work suggest that he neither thinks that the Declaration establishes American governing purposes nor believes that adherence to the Declaration defines American national identity.  He purports to make “American great again” without understanding that American greatness lies in the national commitment to principles set out in the Declaration, a national commitment to the self-evident truths that “all men are created equal,” that all persons are “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” that governments “deriv[e] their just powers from the consent of governed,” and that “it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish” any government that “becomes destructive of those ends.”

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