Share, , Google Plus, Pinterest,


So help me God

Drafters of the US Constitution foresaw violent demagogues, and Presidential Inaugurations have mostly befitted the momentous transfers of power

By John Vivian Cooke.

Exactly on the stroke of noon on 20 January, Donald Trump will be out of office. There will be no more lies, frauds, outrages, or broken laws from President Trump.    His presidency as a whole, and the violent death throes of its final days, have stretched democratic norms to their breaking point, but the inevitable messy end of his term proved the resilience of the US Constitution.   

Some of the dangers they sought to guard against were instability, confusion and attempts by factions to mask violence under the Constitution

The drafters of the Constitution foresaw exactly such a demagogue. They published extensive commentaries addressing concerns about the effective operation of republican forms of government. Their plan sought to resolve the paradox that without order there can be no freedom; to give sufficient powers to the government to allow it to fulfil its essential functions without diminishing the liberties of citizens. Some of the dangers they sought to guard against were: 

¨(T)he instability, injustice, and confusion introduced into the public councils, (which) have, in  truth, been the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished”. (James Madison, Federalist Number 10) 

They foresaw the danger posed by organised and violent malcontents, whom they knew as ¨factions¨, who would seek to subvert the operation of government.  

¨By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest,  adversed (sic) to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the  community”. (James Madison, Federalist Number 10) 

Benefitting from thorough classical educations, they readily drew on analogies from antiquity.  

¨It is impossible to read the history of the petty republics of Greece and Italy without feeling sensations of horror and disgust at the distractions with which they were continually agitated,  and at the rapid succession of revolutions by which they were kept in a state of perpetual  vibration between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy”. (Alexander Hamilton, Federalist Number 9)

Supporters of Publius Clodius Pulcher, Trump in a toga, sacked the Senate in 52 BC

If they had witnessed Trump’s mob desecrating the Capitol Building, they would have recalled the career of the ancient Roman politician, Publius Clodius Pulcher, whose enraged supports attacked and destroyed the Senate building (Curia Hosta) in 52 BC. 

Indeed, the parallels between Clodius and Trump are more than incidental. Clodius was a demagogue with a record of numerous public sex scandals; a wealthy aristocratic who surrender his status as a Patrician to further his anti-elites appeal to the poor; whose term as a Plebeian Tribune in 59 BC was marred by violence, intimidation, and the abuse of power in the vindictive settling of old scores. In short: Donald Trump in a toga.  

Informed by historical precedent and wary of the risks of disorder, the Constitution was designed with such specific hazards in mind.  

¨If a faction consists of less than a majority, relief is supplied by the republican principle, which  enables the majority to defeat its sinister views by regular vote. It may clog the administration,  it may convulse the society; but it will be unable to execute and mask its violence under the  forms of the Constitution”. (James Madison, Federalist Number 10)  

Donald Trump has repeatedly attempted to frustrate this safeguard. 

His attempts to overturn the election results escalated into an act of domestic terrorism that was an attack on the personal, physical, and institutional manifestations of American democracy. 

That those efforts failed when Congress completed the constitutional processes of certifying the election results vindicates James Madison`s opinion that: 

¨AMONG (sic) the numerous advantages promised by a well-constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction.  The friend of popular governments never finds himself so much alarmed for their character and fate, as when he contemplates their propensity to this dangerous vice. He will not fail, therefore, to set a due value on any plan which, without violating the principles to which he is attached, provides a proper cure for it”. (James Madison, Federalist Number 10)

The inauguration ceremony for President-elect Joe Biden and Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris will be a celebration of this transfer of power in accordance with the democratically expressed will of a sovereign people.  

This ceremony has occurred with metronymic regularity since 1797, and each scheduled change of president (with the exception of Rutherford B Hayes` inauguration of 1877) has been celebrated in public. 

Quadrennial public inaugurations of the president also serve the practical political function of legitimising the handover of power from one party to another and are the reason the bipartisan Congressional Joint Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies has chosen ¨Our Determined Democracy: Forging a More Perfect Union” and ¨America United¨ as this year`s themes. 

The Presidential Inauguration Committee, which is responsible for organising broader celebrations, has been forced to abandon many longstanding traditions to comply with public health restrictions so, although the Pass in Review by members representing every branch of the armed services will still take place, this year there will be no Capitol luncheon, no inaugural parade and the series of inaugural balls have moved online.   

What remains is the formal inaugural ceremony during which the incoming Vice President and then incoming President will swear their oaths of office, followed by the new President’s inaugural address. While all the pomp and ceremony are familiar, only the administration of the oath of office is constitutionally mandated. Article II, Section 1, Clause 8 states: 

¨Before he enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation:  – I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the  United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution  of the United States”. 

Franklin Pierce is the only president to have affirmed rather than sworn the oath of office. Many witnesses to Herbert Hoover`s inauguration thought that he too affirmed the oath, (because of his Quaker faith), but close examination of the newsreel footage proved that he used the words ¨I do solemnly swear¨. It is disputed as matter of historical record whether George Washington actually said ¨So help me God¨ at the conclusion of his oath, but, nonetheless, the phrase has passed into accepted tradition.  

It is also a tradition, but not an obligation, for the Chief Justice to administer the oath to the new president. One would assume that a Chief Justice would be familiar with the constitutional particulars, but, in 1929, Chief Justice William Taft administered the oath from memory and prompted the incorrect form ¨preserve, maintain and defend¨ to which President Hoover responded with the correct ¨preserve, protect and defend¨. 

This lapse of memory is all the more surprising as Taft had sworn the oath himself as President in 1909 – as a former President and a former Chief Justice, Taft is the only person to have both sworn and administered the Presidential oath. (Taft`s own inauguration was one of the coldest in history; seeing the temperatures plummet on the day he quipped: ¨I always knew it would be a cold day in Hell when I became president”.) 

A similar incident involving President Obama and Chief Justice Roberts in 2009 memorably inspired the season finale of Veep in 2014 where Selena Myers is repeatedly administered the Presidential oath of office.  

New Presidents use all elements of the inaugural ceremony to outline their vision for, and the tone of, their coming term. 

The image of the President is framed by the imposing Capitol Building combined with the sweeping panorama of the National Mall: the iconic Reflecting Pool and the imposing Washington Monument. This year, it is all the more important to see the new President take office on the very steps where Trump`s horde had run riot only a matter of days earlier.  

John F Kennedy’s 1961 inauguration was precisely choreographed by Pierre Salinger and recorded by television as a visual metaphor for the generational change from the ageing Eisenhower to the youthful Kennedy. The recitation by Robert Frost of his poem ‘The Gift Outright’ was a statement of cultural sophistication which, together with reporting by the enraptured Teddy White, promoted the popular perception of Camelot. 

President-elect Biden has repeatedly said that his career in public service was inspired in large measure by Kennedy`s challenge:  

“(A)nd so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do  for your country”. 

and the promise that:   

¨(T)he energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavour will light our country  and all who serve it, and the glow from that fire can truly light the world”.  

The expectations of any inaugural speech are immense. President-elect Biden`s speech will be judged against those that preceded his. How will he match the resonance of Frankln D Roosevelt`s ¨We have nothing to fear but fear itself¨? Even those speeches that were less memorable were skilfully crafted marshalling conscious literary techniques.

 As a work of rhetoric Richard Nixon`s use of antithesis in the passage: ¨(W)e find ourselves rich in goods, but ragged in spirit; reaching with magnificent precision for the moon, but falling into raucous discord on earth”,  is worthy of study but cannot compete with the rolling cadences in John F Kennedy`s inspirational passage: 

¨Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage, and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

Let every nation know whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any  burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the  success of liberty”. 

President-elect Biden faces a challenge to find the words that can bind the wounds inflicted on the nation by  Donald Trump.

 It is a task similar to the one that confront Abraham Lincoln in even more divisive circumstances. His second inaugural address is a towering monument to the power of rhetoric and is unsurpassed in the history of such speeches: 

¨With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the light as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for  him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and orphan, to do all which may achieve  and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations”.

Unexpected dangers can lurk in inaugural addresses. In 1841, it took William Henry Harrison almost two hours to deliver his inaugural address. In light of what transpired, it is unsurprising that it remains the longest inaugural speech in history, clocking in at 8,445 words. Harrison delivered his speech in the cold and wet without a hat or coat; when he died 31 days later of suspected pneumonia, the circumstances of his speech were blamed. 

It will be a relief that, for the first time since he waddled off his escalator and onto the national stage, Trump will not be the defining figure of US politics. The Trump farce will move out of the White House into the courts and onto the Senate floor. No longer will reporting of the Presidency have to negotiate the ignominies of his antics and crimes. 

On Wednesday, the levers of power will be wrested from his grubby grasp and unambiguously vest into the care of President Joe Biden.