Breaking News
More () »

President Trump's first year made me rethink my American government class

Trump made me change my American government class
Credit: Andrew Harnik, AP
President Trump with Republican members of Congress at Camp David, Md., Jan. 6, 2018.

This week marks my 45th year teaching the introductory American Government course at Rutgers University. This is an ever changing field, and the half-life of lecture notes is vanishingly brief, so updates are always necessary — except for the fundamentals such as our Constitution and the events that led to its ratification. But this year is different.

I usually go a bit overboard in praising the role of James Madison and discuss how well his design for our government has stood up to the challenges and crises of the past 230 years. After the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, I've revised my syllabus to reflect my concern over whether the values Madison wrote into the Constitution will survive the next three years.

More: On sex scandals, Democrats are now the Puritans and it could cost them

More: Without countries like the ones Trump trashed, there'd be no America

I teach a “mainstream” course — neither distinctively left or right — and have always avoided indoctrinating my students. Although I am a registered Democrat, I serve as the adviser to the campus Republicans and during the 2016 GOP primaries was sponsor of “Students for Rubio."

In shaping last year’s course, I took Trump’s election in stride. I referred to him as “unconventional," a term with which I think few would disagree. I also operated on the assumption that whatever the idiosyncrasies of his 44 predecessors, most conformed to the barriers erected by the Constitution’s separation of powers and checks and balances. I was convinced that the system would “normalize” Trump, and that if he lacked the knowledge and self-control required of a president, Congress would bring him into line — especially congressional Republicans, few of whom supported him for the party’s nomination.

It was in May that Trump fired FBI Director James Comey and then gave conflicting explanations of why. That was when I first realized that the anodyne term “unconventional” was inadequate to describe Trump, and that I would have to make some significant changes in how I taught my American Government course.

I could not explain Trump’s flaws in the same terms that I dealt with the shortcomings of his predecessors: Andrew Jackson’s coarseness and racism, Warren Harding’s naiveté and Richard Nixon’s guile. I could explain Abraham Lincoln’s suspension of the writ of habeas corpus as a pardonable lapse in light of the seriousness of the challenge he faced and place in context Franklin Roosevelt’s roundup and detention of Japanese Americans. But as Year One of the Trump administration unfolded with its neglectful treatment of the federal government and its serial untruths, I came increasingly to doubt the robustness of Madison’s design for our government.

Madison believed that the principal check on presidential power would be Congress. But then I witnessed the sad spectacle of Republican senators and House members on the south lawn of the White House celebrating passage of the tax reform bill. They extolled the leadership of a man many of them privately despise in terms much more fitting for a flattery-addicted despot than for the leader of a constitutional republic, and I saw the inadequacy of Congress as a dependable check on this presidency. Worse still was the tableau at Camp David recently when the leaders of Congress were arrayed like potted palms on the stage behind Trump.

More: Trump's not being defamed. If he was, he wouldn't need to change the libel laws.

POLICING THE USA: A look at race, justice, media

This convinced me that the constitutional device for ridding ourselves of a defective president that depends on action by Congress — the process of impeachment by the House and a Senate trial — would be impossible given the partisan composition of the present Congress. Even more unlikely would be the initiation for removal under the 25th Amendment that would require action by a Cabinet chosen by Trump himself and which has shown no evidence it is capable of independent thought or action.

This has caused me to reemphasize another part of my syllabus that I will never change: the importance of the ballot box. Americans can make mistakes that can be repaired every two years in federal elections. A Congress willing to curb an erratic president who traffics in untruth is the most reliable corrective. I have always urged my students to vote but never for whom to cast their ballot. I will again this year. As for my own preference, they can draw their own conclusions.

Ross K. Baker is a distinguished professor of political science at Rutgers University and a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors. Follow him on Twitter: @Rosbake1.

You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @USATOpinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To respond to a column, submit a comment to letters@usatoday.com.