I am a Republican. Not in the modern American sense of no healthcare, no abortions and a state large enough to oppress you but not large enough to do anything useful. No, I’m a Republican in the more traditional sense. The American Revolution. The French Revolution. A written constitution with seperation of church and state and laws not made by aristocrats. An elected head of state who got there by virtue of being chosen by their people rather than virtue of being loosely descended from an 11th century Norman warlord. Kings bad, democracy good basically.
I’ve been a Republican from a young age and this has involved many ups and downs. I remember coming out as a Republican to my ex-girlfriend’s monarchist parents. I’m not sure which was worse, the republicanism or the atheism. There was the time I tried to convince my friends it would be super fun to spend a royal wedding street party handing out cupcakes decorated with the British republican flag, which for reference looks like this:
On a first date once I tried to convince a woman of the virtues of a republic. She called me a ‘constitutional nerd’ and there was no second. Those were the downs, I’m still waiting for the ups.
This is not an article arguing in favour of a republic. I do intend to write that article one day, but this isn’t it. Rather this is an article about Donald Trump (I know, another one, you must be shocked) and how he has changed my views on republicanism? Do I still think kings bad, democracy good. The short answer; not at all and yes.
You see, how fun it is to be a republican is pretty strongly linked to two things, how close we are to the birth of a royal baby and whether America has a good President. Because America is the republic most British people can easily call to mind, even though I would prefer a republic based on the French rather than American model. During the Obama years it was pretty easy to point at Barack and say to friends: “Hey, wouldn’t you like some of that!?”. During George W. Bush’s Presidency… it wasn’t something you talked about.
So now Donald Trump, widely talked about as America’s worst President much to the delight of Millard Fillmore’s ghost, is the example I have to point to. I’ll admit on the surface it doesn’t look particularly helpful to my case. But I still think Britain should have an elected head of state and, strangely, I think the Trump Presidency might actually boost this argument. I’ll explain for those of you who just spat coffee onto your laptops. You should probably wipe that up.
Trump was elected (under an archaic electoral system which our republic won’t have but that’s beside the point) and is now the example of an elected head of state for most British people. And I agree he is a horrible man who is doing a horrible job. Even though his job is a lot harder than our head of state’s whose daily task is to sit in a chair and not die. A feat for which she is paid £345 million.
But a republic is not just the President, it is everything that surrounds the President. It’s the republican institutions with set powers and the responsibility of each part of government to restrain the others outlined in the constitution. It is the congress, it is the courts, it is the constitution, it is a codified deceleration of rights and it is the idea that there is law and principle above any individual person.
Donald Trump has tried to do some truly frightening things since assuming office but he has been largely unsuccessful. Think of the failures of Trump, on taking healthcare away from millions of Americans and banning Muslim immigration he has been restrained by republican institutions. Trump hasn’t been able to pass the American Healthcare Act/Trumpcare/Let’s Kill the Poor Hooray or whatever you want to call it because the independent congress has repeatedly blocked the President’s wishes. The independent republican court system in the US has also blocked the implementation of Trump’s racist muslim ban . And while the Supreme Court has now allowed parts of the ban to be implemented this is ahead of further legal arguments in the Autumn and at least Trump hasn’t been able to implement the ban unilaterally.
Because if America were a constitutional monarchy like Britain with a Prime Minister Trump he would have been easily able to force these measure through a House of Commons unopposed. You see in Britain we suffer from something called elective dictatorship.
The American constitution sets out three branches of government, the executive (The President, Cabinet, civil service who do the governing), the legislature (the congress who make the laws) and the judiciary (the supreme court). All these branches have different powers that can counteract the others so shit doesn’t get too oppressive. But we don’t have that. Our executive is all powerful. The Prime Minister sits in parliament and parliament tends to obey the Prime Minister because it’s controlled by their party. We don’t have a written constitution that guarantees basic rights so there are no judges to act as a check on the government either. On the contrary it is a fairly accepted legal precedent in Britain that judges should never overturn a law passed by parliament no matter how stupid or cruel. This means that if a Prime Minister has a decent majority in parliament, or even a majority of one seat theoretically, there’s nothing to stop them doing whatever they wanted. If Theresa May wanted to ban Muslims, privatise the NHS, build a couple of walls somewhere, force us all to paint ourselves blue, bake her a cake and sing Cheeky Girls hits to her as she consumed it she could do it tomorrow. Well I guess technically at the moment she’d have to get the DUP to agree but I’m sure the magic money tree could be persuaded to drop another billion.
Take for example the issue of human rights. The Tories make no secret of their heart’s desire being to rip up the human rights act, set it on fire and dance around it shirtless as the embers of our right to free speech float away on a smokey breeze. Both the Cameron and May governments have made serious attempts to repeal the Human Rights Act, they’re even now trying to include a bonfire of liberties as part of the Brexit process. And they can just do that! The only thing that’s stopping them has been shaky parliamentary majorities since they were elected in 2010.
But republics have higher law, written constitutions that it’s really freakin hard for the government of the day to change. Donald Trump may hate civil rights but if he wants to repeal the Bill of Rights he can’t, because it’s part of the constitution. Emmanuel Macron may be a nasty little wannabe Napoleon but if he wants to take more power for himself by ripping up the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen he’ll have a much tougher time because those rights are enshrined in the constitution of the French Republic.
I suspect what you’re thinking now is: “But Sam, Trump’s a criminal. Look at Russia, here’s a map, look at Russia! The Queen may be paid millions of pounds for sitting in a chair and not dying but at least Russia’s never had to help her into the chair.” A fair point hypothetical reader. Our royal family has never received e-mails from our enemies, they’ve just sold weapons to them. But, yes, the Trump campaign potentially committed treason in colluding with a hostile nation to elect Trump President. Trump has also potentially perverted the course of justice by firing FBI Director James Comey for investigating Trump’s links to Russian hacking. Although here again republican institutions are stepping in. The US constitution has a mechanism for removing criminal Presidents, putting them on trial and sending them to prison. Trump’s impeachment may not happen this week (although who knows) but it is being actively talked about in both American parties and could very well be on the way.
Imagine a parallel universe where King Donald the First is unimpeachable, serving for life, with only the promise of a massive coronary as a check on his power. He could collude with his nation’s enemies all he liked then. Monarchs did, that was one of the causes of the French Revolution. Even if King Donald’s heart decided to act for the good of the Kingdom he’d only be replaced by Prince Donald of the House Trump Jr. Not much better in my opinion. Because of America is a republic though the criminal Trump could soon be behind bars and maybe his son with him.
So when people say “We shouldn’t be a republic, look at President Trump.” I say yes, look at President Trump and what a republic is about to do to him.
P.S. Advocating for a Republic in Britain is still technically punishable by transportation to Australia so if you don’t hear from me after this goes out please forward any post to Melbourne.