Last week, something happened at a Donald Trump rally I have never seen in American politics. Nor would I believed it if you told me. What follows is a report of the rally:
The scene unfolded during a raucous rally at a University of Central Florida arena in Orlando, Florida, that featured frequent interruptions by protesters over Trump’s hour-long address.
“Let’s do a pledge. Who likes me in this room?” Trump asked the crowd. “I’ve never done this before. Can I have a pledge? A swearing? Raise your right hand.”
The Republican front-runner then had the audience repeat after him.
“I do solemnly swear that I, no matter how I feel, no matter what the conditions, if there are hurricanes or whatever, will vote on or before the 12th for Donald J. Trump for President.”
The crowd ended the pledge with cheers.
“Now I know. Don’t forget you all raised your hands. You swore. Bad things happen if you don’t live up to what you just did,” Trump said before continuing with his speech.
Photographers at the event posted pictures of the pledge which went viral.
Trump rally in Florida. He asked people to swear they would vote for him. This photo ensued. pic.twitter.com/dE18AJLIEv
— John Podhoretz (@jpodhoretz) March 5, 2016
I watched and read reactions to the pledge. You could find everything from comparisons to a Hitler rally to Ted Cruz saying candidates should pledge their loyalty to the people. I believe most reactions and punditry miss why the pledge is wrong. The real reason the pledge is wrong: the objective truths America was founded upon are antithetical to Trump’s voter pledge. This may sound cliché, but I believe it can be proven when truth and principle are compared to Trump’s pledge.
For comparison, I want to focus on the oath of office administered during a Presidential inauguration. The oath is the only official pledge the President makes before taking office. The principles underlying the oath provide an excellent contrast to Trump’s pledge. The oath can be found in Article II § 1 of the US Constitution:
Before he enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation:— “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
The President must “swear (or affirm)” 1 two things: 1) He must faithfully execute the office of the President, and 2) preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution. The methods to faithfully execute the office are laid out in Article II § 1-4. Why is the President sworn to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution and not “We the people?” To answer that we need to understand history and the importance of the Constitution.
For a long time in history, the supreme law of the land was the monarchy. The king made the law and everyone lived under the king’s rule, good or bad. Judges decided individual cases and created common law, but no decision or law was higher than the king. Supreme law resided solely with the king. In 1215, English noblemen pushed back. The result was the Magna Carta (latin for The Great Charter). The Magna Carta’s ambition was to supplant the monarchy as the supreme rule of law. The king could not overrule rights laid out in the Magna Carta. Instead of the divine right of kings, a rule of law was established. This was a transformational shift in the source of legal power for kings and changed legal precedent.
The US Constitution followed in the Magna Carta’s footsteps. The Constitution is the supreme law of the land in the United States that binds people and their rights together. The Founders laid out, in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, that rights came from God and the Constitution secured those rights. This hierarchy and structure gives the Constitution its force over the three branches of government. It provides the ultimate check on government power by saying no branch can act beyond the powers the Constitution gives it. The three branches compete against each other while being subservient to a higher law.
In order to become President of the United States, a person must swear (or affirm) the oath that makes them subservient to the Constitution. The President makes an oath, similar to what Englishmen demanded from kings under the Magna Carta, that he will faithfully fulfill his office and preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution. The Constitutional Convention delegates had two goals in mind: 1) Prevent America from having a King, Emperor, or Caesar as the supreme law/ruler of the land, and 2) Prevent mob rule. The Constitution was the rule of law and it subverted the President and people to a higher law.
Let’s return to Trump’s voter pledge with context and history covered. Trump asks his supporters to vote for him no matter what happens in the race. He demands loyalty. As I said earlier, the reason a voter pledge is wrong is that is antithetical to the objective truths the US was founded upon. The President and American people are under Constitutional rule of law which no man can overthrow. Swearing loyalty to a candidate or President elevates that man to the position of a king. Only kings and tyrants demand or require loyalty from their subjects. The principles of the Constitution do not agree with a voter pledge:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
A person running for office is subservient to the Constitution because the People accepted the Constitution as supreme law. This makes Ted Cruz wrong when he says the President should pledge loyalty to the voters. A President should never take such a pledge. Voters may ask the President to do something against the Constitution. The President cannot take such action. Voters may want tyrannical mob rule. A President must resist these impulses. A candidate is running to faithfully execute the office and defend the Constitution, not answer the impulses of the people. Nor is a candidate supposed to be a servant of the people, he must be a servant for the people. He serves by faithfully executing his office under the direction of the Constitution.
When Trump gives his pledge, he is channeling an era when kings demanded loyalty from their subjects. Trump claims to be a servant of the people, representing the anger voters have towards “the establishment.” 2 This is not what a President swears or affirms. A President cannot represent the anger of the people. The President must be more than reflection of the people. The President must preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. The Constitution requires more. Like Trump said, “bad things happen when you don’t live up to what you just said.” Trump does not live up to the principles of the office is he seeks. We need a President humble enough to embody the oath of office.
Every President America has elected submitted to the Constitution. It was put in place to humble a President into fulfilling a role, not lord over people. The Founders knew people would eventually demand tyranny from their leaders. This was a commonplace occurrence in history. The Constitution was designed to reign in those passions and prevent abuses of power. The oath pledges a President to serve a higher law, not the passions of the people. A man representing populist anger is an enemy of higher law, not a humble servant. When a politician demands loyalty from people, it’s a sign he wants power, not that he will serve. The first President lived up to the oath, the 45th President should do the same.
- Why “swear (or affirm)?” Legal history geek moment: the “swear (or affirm)” language was put in to help religious people who could not “swear” an oath. At the time of the Convention, Quakers were a sizable contingent of the population. Quakers believed that Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, “let your yeas be yeas…,” was a principle they had to uphold. They could not “swear” an oath. The word “affirm” was inserted to prevent conflicts of faith. Most Presidents have used the word “swear” in the oath. The only President I’m aware to use the word “affirm” is Franklin Pierce. Wikipedia says Nixon used affirm, but in C-SPAN video of his inauguration he clearly says “swear.” ↩
- “The Establishment” is a purposely meaningless phrase. It means whatever the listener wants it to mean. In political science, the establishment encompasses a wide breadth of people, including many of those who currently claim to be against the establishment. This includes media members, medium-high profile social media users, and politicians. For more, see: “The Party Decides.” In modern political rhetoric, it is purposely never defined so speakers can allow the listener to fill in the blanks with what they want to hear. It’s a cheap rhetorical trick. ↩