Pres. Donald Trump has three rhetorical ticks that give me heartburn. He uses the phrases “people tell me all the time” and “they say” when he’s making things up. He accuses the media of disseminating “fake news” whenever reporters disagree with him. He rants about the “shadow government” when bureaucrats cannot enact his mandates immediately because they contravene law, policy, or protocol.
All three of these tendencies indicate a disregard for the social contract between a government and its people. A politician who favors fiction over fact merely serves himself. A politician who tolerates the press only when it serves his purposes cannot be trusted. A politician who does not understand the necessity of law, policy, or protocol will ultimately expect the government to serve him rather than the people.
Pres. Trump won the presidency at least in part because the people, tired of explanations for complex economies and treaties that they haven’t studied or don’t understand, placed their faith in a candidate who offered simple solutions. They wanted black and white explanations and actions rather than those that accommodated the gray areas of real, human affairs. They expressed a lack of faith that government had been doing anything the majority wanted.
Simple is as simple does.
Pres. Trump’s supporters–and there are enough of them, I suspect, to give him another four years in office–have not yet allowed themselves to see the potential damage to our system of governance wrought by a person who governs by executive order rather than through other elected leaders. (One could levy the same charge against Pres. Obama, I know, but the problem seems to be getting worse.) Nor do they want to consider the ways that asking foreign powers to spy on political rivals would shatter traditional concepts of sovereignty. They share his frustrations with the slowness with which the republican system can bring about change, and enjoy lashing out at the “elites” who have respected the laws that stand in their way.
Rousseau’s idea of the social contract centers around the notion that the people have a right to decide the laws under which they live, and that the government must apply those laws fairly. America’s republican system of government divides the responsibilities of administering those laws to three branches of government that should check and balance each other.
My questions for students are these: what does the ideal relationship between citizens and the government look like–in other words, how should we articulate the social contract in the 21st century? How should leaders in our republican system of governance encourage the people to place faith in it again?