Shortly after the United States Constitutional Convention ended on September 17, 1787, Dr Benjamin Franklin stepped out of what is known today as Independence Hall in Philadelphia into the summer sun. For four months, Franklin and the other 54 delegates present had negotiated a four-page Constitution that established the US government from the disparate threads of 12 of the 13 original states.
A woman approached Franklin. “Well, Doctor, what have we got – a republic or a monarchy?” “A Republic, if you can keep it,” Franklin replied. Franklin’s remark was, at once, a celebration and a warning. A fragile federation had been born, bound by a newly minted constitution. Inevitably, Franklin implied, that bond would be tested. In those trying circumstances, vigilance by all would be vital to keeping the republic whole. More than two centuries later, Franklin’s prophecy came to pass yet again in a nation whose history teems with tumult and division.
On January 6, 2021, the US’s republic was tested by an insurrection. A mob, primed and encouraged by an angry, vanquished president, attacked the Capitol with one aim: to prevent the certification by Congress of Joe Biden’s election as president. The insurrection failed. Most members of Congress, who had taken shelter from the marauding mob, emerged later that jarring day determined to fulfil their constitutional duty to ratify the new president’s decisive victory. Since then, scores of the insurrectionists have been arrested, charged and convicted for their often violent roles in the thwarted coup d’état.
On July 24, a truck driver from Arkansas was sentenced to 52 months in jail for beating a police officer with a flagpole while shouting: “That entire building is filled with treasonous traitors. Death is the only remedy for what’s in that building.” So far, the chief architect of the madness and mayhem has evaded the same fate. Happily, it appears that Donald Trump’s reprieve is about to end. Last week, Special Counsel Jack Smith sent Trump a letter informing him that he was a “target” of a probe into the cacophonous events of January 6th and invited him to testify before a grand jury considering indicting the defeated president. Trump’s carousel of lawyers rejected the special counsel’s offer, insisting their rule-of-law-allergic client had “done nothing wrong” and, with typical bluster, accusing Smith of being Biden’s handmaiden. Apparently, a grand jury disagrees.
Trump could soon be charged with a slew of counts in connection to three felonies, including conspiracy, obstruction and witness tampering. If that happens, it will mark the third time Trump has been indicted since March. He is, of course, the first former president to face such a blunt legal reckoning. Trump’s long rap sheet reflects the sorry character of a career crook-turned-president. He is a philanderer and a liar who pays hush money to a mistress to keep her mum. He is a raging narcissist who hoards reams of the nation’s secrets, brandishing them like a petulant child eager to impress and soothe his insatiable ego.
He is a confidence man who revels in and exploits for his parochial ends the ignorance, malice and manufactured grievances of his maniacal followers. Most egregious of all, he is a conniving impostor who betrayed his oath to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States”. Dissatisfied, a few liberal commentators grumble that the indictments, while welcomed, represent an anti-climactic denouement that may or may not result in Trump’s comeuppance or political demise. I share a bit of their chagrin. I have written about Trump’s persistent and perplexing popularity even in the face of a host of criminal charges that, if decency or probity mattered, should have disqualified the 45th president from becoming commander-in-chief once more. Still, I remain convinced that these occasionally grating curmudgeons miss the reassuring meaning and purpose of Trump’s indictments.
The ordinary, anonymous Americans who constitute the three grand juries which, to date, have charged or are expected to charge a vulgar simpleton who was cloaked in enormous power as president have heeded Franklin’s call to keep their republic intact. They are doing their part in corralling an unrepentant scoundrel who yearns to exercise the privileges and prerogatives of an omnipotent monarch. This is an essential act of citizenship that has required enlightened Americans to reject – sometimes at great risk and usually with little fanfare – the sinister designs of a demagogue who prefers autocracy to democracy. So was the defiance of largely anonymous Capitol police officers, motivated no doubt, in part, by the imperative to preserve, protect and defend the US Constitution. They stood their ground despite being outnumbered, overwhelmed and hurt in body, mind and spirit. They prevailed. Rather than wallow in disappointment, forlorn liberal writers ought to applaud the resolve of honourable Americans who have held a dishonourable president to stiff account. They have acted as a bulwark – as Franklin envisioned – against a “populist” charlatan intent on extinguishing the republic in his obsessive pursuit of money, power and vengeance. The delicious irony is that, ultimately, Trump’s fate will be decided by the kind of everyday, anonymous Americans he detests and to whom he would deny membership at his gilded monument to kitsch and extravagance, Mar-a-Lago.
Trump has bullied and berated much of the Republican Party into complicity and silence. He did not count on the legion of wise Americans who refuse to be intimidated into complicity or silence – inside a courtroom or at the ballot box. However frayed, it is their republic – not Trump’s – and they intend to keep it.