As I sat watching the Republican debate on March 3, I was astounded to hear Donald Trump openly advocating, on a full national platform, for direct torture. When questioned about the possibility of subordinates rejecting the order, he said:
“They won’t refuse, they’re not going to refuse me, believe me. If I say do it, they’re going to do it. That’s what leadership is all about.”
I knew that torture was against international law, against United States law, and against United States military code. To hear a candidate openly calling for the breaking of law was shocking to me.
Is this what “making America great again” is all about?
What is the answer to the question? What does make America great?
The answer became clearer a few days later when, in response to Trump, a retired general publicly said this:“Somebody needs to remind Mr. Trump that the military is not his palace guards. We do not do this,” retired general Hertling said. “They take an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies -- foreign and domestic.”
He was supported in a public statement by over a hundred national security leaders in which they said they would not obey that order.
Trump backed down.
Here were Americans reminding Trump, and really all of America, that we are not a country ruled by a man. We are ruled by a Constitution. We do not swear allegiance to a man. We raise our right hand and take an oath to the Law. The Founders, in framing the new America and in coming out from under the tyranny of King George, split the power apart in a brilliant system designed with the purpose of never again coming under the rule of a tyrant.
Following the rule of law and not the rule of man is surely a necessary thing, but I knew this could not be the final answer. I knew from history and humanity that power was intoxicating and, given opportunity, leaders would simply not follow the rule of law. It is not enough. If Trump were to become president and surround himself with similar minded, power hungry men, what would become of the law?
I remember a previous president and his right hand man:
Early in the morning of June 17, 1972, several burglars were arrested inside the office of the Democratic National Committee, located in the Watergate building in Washington, D.C. This was no ordinary robbery though: The prowlers were connected to President Richard Nixon’s reelection campaign, and they had been caught while attempting to wiretap phones and steal secret documents. Nixon, in a brazen violation of the law, was trying to secure his reelection. One illegal act was followed by numerous illegal acts in an attempt to cover it up. He raised “hush money” for the burglars, tried to stop the Federal Bureau of Investigation from investigating the crime, destroyed evidence and fired uncooperative staff members who would not go along with his illegalities.
There was one staff member, though, who was solidly behind the president -- Charles Colson. Colson, a former Marine and self-described “flag-waving American”, loved his country. Though trained in the law, he would do everything in his power to break it in order to help Richard Nixon. He knew Nixon needed to be reelected. The ultra-liberal Democrat George McGovern had to be stopped. Ultimately, when it all came crashing down he would be sent to jail for obstruction of justice.
Here was a president and some of his staff who were convinced they knew what the right result was and were going to get it done no matter the means. The law was not sufficient.
I remembered a different story from 2004 in which a man was confronted with the same choice:
Do I follow the rule of law or do I follow the rule of men?
In 2004 when James Comey was deputy attorney general, he was asked to reauthorize a package of top secret, warrantless surveillance targeting foreign terrorists. But Comey believed significant aspects of the massive program were not lawful. He refused to sign.
At the time, Comey was in charge at the Justice Department because Attorney General John Ashcroft was in intensive care with near fatal pancreatitis. When Comey refused to sign off, the president's Chief of Staff Andy Card headed to the hospital to get Ashcroft's approval.
Comey jumped in his car and raced to the hospital to prevent this from happening. He managed to get there first, and attempted to explain to Ashcroft but he was too disoriented from his illness, so Comey waited.
In walked Andy Card and White House Counsel Gonzales. They spoke to Attorney General Ashcroft and said, in very strong terms, that the program should be reauthorized. Ashcroft surprised Comey when he pushed himself up on his elbows and said, "But that doesn't matter because I'm not the attorney general." He turned to Comey and pointed weakly. "There's the attorney general." Then Ashcroft fell back, and the others had no choice but to turn and leave.
The next day, some in the White House tried to force the authorization through a different way. So, Comey wrote a letter of resignation to the president, calling the situation "apocalyptic" and "fundamentally wrong." He left the letter on his desk as he and FBI Director Robert Mueller went to the White House to resign.
As they looked out at the Rose Garden, waiting to meet the president, they both fully expected that this was the termination of their government careers. In the end, however, President Bush was persuaded not to implement the unconstitutional changes.
Comey was asked about this episode later in an interview.
Interviewer: Wasn't it your responsibility to support the president?
James Comey: No. No, it was my responsibility. I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.
Interviewer: Help me understand the principle at stake here that caused you to write a letter of resignation, to rush to the attorney general's bedside, to tell the president that he couldn't have what he wanted, and to face down the president's chief of staff. What was it that motivated that?
James Comey: The rule of law. Simple as that.
What was the difference between Colson and Comey? What would compel the one to follow the Constitution and the other to pursue power instead?
There was a wise sage from France, Alexis de Tocqueville, who visited the young republic of America in 1831. He traveled throughout the country examining our people, noting our vast resources and our wonderful new Constitution. How was this new country so successful? Why was it great? How would it continue to be even greater?
Tocqueville made this trenchant observation:
“Despotism may govern without faith, but liberty cannot. Religion is much more necessary in the republic which they set forth in glowing colors than in the monarchy which they attack; and it is more needed in democratic republics than in any others. How is it possible that society should escape destruction if the moral tie be not strengthened in proportion as the political tie is relaxed? and what can be done with a people which is its own master, if it be not submissive to the Divinity?”
This acknowledgement that without faith and good morals liberty was doomed to failure would be echoed by prominent leaders from the beginning of the republic all the way to the modern day. From Adams to Eisenhower to Reagan and beyond, they would paraphrase and poetically expound on this truth in speeches. One example repeatedly used:
“I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her harbors and her ample rivers -- and it was not there. . . . in her fertile fields and bound less forests -- and it was not there. . . . in her rich mines and her vast world of commerce -- and it was not there. . . . in her democratic Congress and her matchless Constitution -- and it was not there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits flame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power."
America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.
This is what makes America great.
"We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge or gallantry would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution is designed only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for any other."John Adams
"Let it be impressed on your mind that God commands you to choose for rulers just men who will rule in the fear of God.
The preservation of a republican government depends on the faithful discharge of this duty; if the citizens neglect their duty and place unprincipled men in office, the government will soon be corrupted; laws will be made, not for the public good, so much as for selfish or local purposes; corrupt or incompetent men will be appointed to execute; the public revenues will be squandered on unworthy men; and the rights of the citizens will be violated or disregarded.
If a republican government fails to secure public prosperity and happiness, it must be because the citizens neglect the Divine commands and elect bad men to make and administer the laws. "Noah Webster