James Madison's Trump Card

The Trump phenomenon—whose latest instantiation is his outright lie about hordes of Jersey City Muslims cheering the collapse of the Twin Towers—is widely thought to be a test of other Republican candidates. It is more than that. With Trump still leading national polls—still?—it is becoming a test of the Madisonian thesis. 

James Madison helped erect a constitutional system built on twin ideals.  One was that reason, not passion, should govern political affairs. The second—the crucial one, the governing principle of American constitutionalism—is that passions are short-lived, so slowing the process of decision allows them to dissipate naturally without inhibiting majority rule.

The question is whether the ones into which Trump has tapped will last.  They have so far endured longer than any pundit predicted.  Trump was supposed to be a flash in the presidential pan because anger tends to rouse but not ultimately inspire, especially in campaigns for the White House.

Madison understood the force of that “ultimately.”  America would endure demagoguery and political hokum.  All democracies would.  But the nature of passion—and contrary to the vapidity that Trump has the guts to “say unpopular things,” he also has yet to be seen in front of a crowd that was not inflamed and applauding—was to be fleeting.

This was a core assumption of both the psychology of the age and the institutional architecture of the regime.  One of the first entries in the 12-year-old James Madison’s school notebook was copied from the 16th century French essayist Michel de Montaigne: “Time is the Sovereign Physician of our Passions….”  In the bedroom of his estate at Montpelier, a print featuring Cupid hangs on the wall.  Athena, goddess of wisdom, has manacled the angelic embodiment of passion. “Love,” the caption reads, “reduced to reason.”

This dichotomy between reason and passion permeates the constitutional system.  Federalist 10 assumes passions will dissipate in the time it takes to communicate over a large territory.  Six-year terms give senators time to resist public opinion and for reason then to take hold before elections—which in turn are staggered so the entire Senate is never subject to a single whim of public passion all at once.

So central are these assumptions about time that the constitutional system could be described as a metronome regulating the tempo of American politics—allegro when necessary, but a leisurely andante as the normal pace.

Madison bets over and over on time—not what happens during the interval of delay, but time itself—cooling the passions.  If the public has to wait before making a decision, it is likelier to do so on the basis of calm, sober reason, which would include asking whether a man who lies about events that allegedly took place in the clear light of day on 9/11 can be trusted with respect to the sincerity of his own wholesale political conversion.

Advocates of shorter political campaigns rather than the long, humbling march through the Iowa and New Hampshire snows might consider Madison’s insight about the propensity of quick decisions to enshrine momentary whims as lasting policy.  They might have been reading reports on the Trump transition team already.

The test of Trump, by contrast, is whether he can sustain the passions he has aroused.  Every Madisonian precept says no—but many of them suggest Trump ought not to have been able to sustain them this long.  Of all the passions, anger ought to be the most fleeting.  Yet anger is powering Trump—not just powering him through gaffes but seemingly drawing power from them.

The best Madisonian response from his vexed Republican opponents might be giving voters time to vent their anger and to realize that a man who continues to vent his spleen probably ought not have either a finger on the nuclear button or his face in a constant microphone.

But time is now running short—December is nearly upon us; the snows of Iowa and New Hampshire are poised to fall—and the problem, of course, is the wreckage he is causing in the interim, including forcing other Republican candidates to respond to comical positions while exposing a seemingly weak-willed inhibition—among those who boast about fighting a civilizational struggle against ISIS, no less—about standing up to a bully a few podiums up the stage.

There is, to be sure, precedent for politicians feeding off voter anger, from Huey Long and Father Coughlin during the Depression to George Wallace during the last gasps of Jim Crow.  Their episodes lasted years.  But anger typically has not grazed the Presidency, nor does it usually make serious, sustained runs at major party nominations.

Will Trump?  Madisonian psychology suggests not.  The question is whether technology has so changed since Madison’s time as to enable continued stoking of passions in ways he could not imagine.  Time will tell, but on the long march to the Presidency, time may also correct.  Technology, after all, has changed a great deal, but human nature is not among the objects of its transformations.  The odds of a Trump presidency are, on Madisonian terms, minuscule.  Time will almost certainly bring voters to their senses.  But one scenario is that it does so after his nomination.

To be sure, Trump may prove Madison wrong.  But before crowning the outsized New Yorker, it may be worth recalling how few have disproved the diminutive Virginian Trump hopes to succeed in the White House.