George Washington, despite having served over 200 years ago, remains one of the greatest Presidents in United States history. Most great leaders are known for their accomplishments. Washington is different, he is known for both his great acts and his humility in not abusing power. After winning the Revolutionary War, Washington did not use the military to take control of the country. We take this for granted now, but Washington would have been within historic tradition to retain power.
He gave his support to the Constitutional Convention. In 1787, the colonies were in a crisis. The Articles of Confederation were useless in unifying independent states into one country. Washington called the articles as useful as a rope of sand. Delegates from five states called for a constitutional convention to provide a means of improving the articles. The potential for fatal infighting loomed large, but Washington’s presence provided a unifying figure for the delegates. Washington did not use his presence as a means to exert his will on the delegation. He chose to serve the convention.
The most important precedent set by Washington was not pursuing a third term. At the time, no law existed which restrained Presidents to two terms. Washington chose not to run for a third term and peacefully gave up power. Peaceful transitions were a historical rarity. When informed of Washington’s plans, King George III of England said, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.” Washington could have ruled as king, but instead chose servanthood.
I hope I shall possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain what I consider the most enviable of all titles, the character of an honest man.– George Washington
Looking at the Presidential candidates now, what candidate would give up power and ambition in order to serve? I venture to guess most Americans would say none of them. Herein lies the reason people support outsiders Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. The American political class has spent decades centralizing power and speaking of their greatness. The American people cannot point to a leader who has put country before personal ambition. Case in point: Gov. Chris Christie’s endorsement of Trump. Christie placed his own political survival above his country in endorsing a man Christie knows is evil.
Americans do not believe the country is headed in the right direction. For the past 7 years, over 60% of Americans continually say the country is headed in the wrong direction. The last time Americans had a positive outlook for the country was a brief moment in June of 2009. Since then, barely 25% believe the country is headed in the right direction. Similar data shows lack of trust of public institutions. Americans do not have faith in political leadership. Americans are saying no one is taking the country in the right direction. Party outsiders, Trump and Sanders, are the culmination two decades of growing populist sentiment against the political elite.
You can see Americans are attempting to get political parties to listen by how fast wave elections are occurring. Democrats received wave elections in 2006 and 2008 after Republican wars, spending, and economic recession drove voters from their ranks. Democrats were then shocked when voters showed displeasure with the 2009 healthcare law by voting in a Republican House in 2010 and a Republican Senate in 2014. Americans are saying one thing: leadership is going the wrong way. Trump and Sanders are symptoms of the underlying problem: a vacuum of leadership. Trump and Sanders are the only people filling that void. The sad irony is that neither of these men is capable being the humble servant leader we need. Ron Fournier of the Atlantic probably put it best:
The American people want change in the worst possible way, and Donald Trump is delivering it … in the worst possible way.
America’s political system needs disruption. Narratives have driven objective truths from the marketplace. Trump’s attacks are right in one respect: narratives have replaced truth in the media. The problem is that Trump and Sanders replace these narratives with something far worse. For Trump, he would replace narratives with tyranny. For Sanders, he would uproot the entire system and replace it with socialism. Neither is the disruption or leadership we need.
Stopping extremism is not a partisan issue. Stopping massive power grabs is the very essence of our Grand Experiment. We rebelled against a monarch abusing power. We fought a civil war to bring freedom to slaves. We resisted impulses of socialism and fascism for a century while Europe was consumed. We are faced with a choice again. America stares into the abyss of these two ideologies: socialism from Sanders and fascism from Trump. We need not fear what we have already defeated. We need only proclaim victory over it and retake what is ours. But this will take leadership.
Political leadership is more than comparing accomplishments. Leadership is having the wisdom of Washington in knowing when to serve. Leadership is more than letting go of power peacefully after a term. A true leader will give up personal ambition to serve in defeating the evil. Washington would be willing to lead and support another person in order for the country to thrive. We need our current leaders to do the same.
Leadership also means the following: if Trump wins the Republican nomination, Republicans must not support him. Republicans must not unite behind a Trump candidacy. In fact, Republicans should renounce the party and either form or support a third party candidate to help defeat Trump in the general election. Personal responsibility is a virtue Republicans espouse. We must lead by example in defeating Trump, no matter the cost. I would argue, as many have, that Trump is not and has never been a Republican or conservative. But he has abused the Republican primary process as his vehicle to spread vile demagoguery. Republicans should unite and ensure this abuse of power does not persist. The Republican primary campaign is now about defeating racism, fascism, and evil. Leadership is not always about winning, it is about standing for objective truth. Washington lost many battles before winning the Revolutionary War. He helped shepherd America from disjointed colonies to the United States of America. We need his spirit to lead us again through the shadows of tyranny and into the light. I pray our leaders have the strength to overcome and unite us in common cause once more.
Citizens, by birth or choice, of a common country, that country has a right to concentrate your affections. The name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations. With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles. You have in a common cause fought and triumphed together; the independence and liberty you possess are the work of joint counsels, and joint efforts of common dangers, sufferings, and successes.George Washington, Farewell Address, 1796.