This is our truth, tell us yours
Watching Obama shake hands with President-Elect Trump today was a study in self-control. With all the class and grace that has been the hallmark of his presidency (even when he’s been imprisoning Chelsea Manning or reneging on promises about Guantanamo, Obama has been classy) the President welcomed the man he despises to the Oval Office. Despite all he said about Trump before the election, an iron mask settled on Obama’s face and he did what a good constitutional president must do; prepare the way for his successor, no matter how bad or unsuitable they may be. If in the process, he resembled President Hindenburg rather than President Lincoln, the fault lies not in Obama but rather in the founding myths and practices of American democracy.
From one perspective, constitutions are not particularly interesting. They exist to codify existing power relationships that are rooted in economic realities. In America, where the independence of the nation was based on a kind of symbolic regicide by rebellion, the only way the sin could be explained was by passing off the intellectual whims of the killers as holy writ, a rationalized roadmap for the future.
That’s the first thing you have to understand about the American constitution. Leave aside the obvious, and rather serious flaws about it being a consitution that allowed for slavery and institutionalized misogyny, in the interest of getting a deal that all the parties could sign up to, and you have to understand that not all Americans agreed to it. When it begins ‘we the people’ it actually means ‘we the people who won this particular argument…’
Nevertheless the reality of the USA as a country with a written constitution, that was originated in a convention, is that it’s a country where accepting the legitimacy of the constitution, and upholding it, is an article of faith.
So for Obama, accepting that the show must go on is not just something he has suddenly realized;it’s part of the belief system that you have to share, as an American, before you ever get involved in politics.
The problem with turning your constitution, which is nothing more than a convenient modus operandi, into a belief system is that believers can’t see outside the system. So an electoral college devised because transport was difficult and inconvenient persists,despite the distortions it imposes on politics and the public debate.
The one joy for all of uswho care aboutthe USA, outof all of this,isthat the system devised by those rebellious regicides, designed to prevent one man being elected as monarch, will hobble Trump; even ardent Republicans will rebel if he does not abide by the rules of the constitutional system. Just as Obama had to wear the iron mask to hide hisfeelings,so Trump will have to negotiate or be confined by the constitutional straightjacket.