In 1796, George Washington gave his famed farewell address upon leaving office, offering sage advice to the young Republic regarding how to conduct its affairs in the future.
But in the 220 years since that address, the country’s leaders, in their apparent boundless imprudence, did the exact opposite of what Washington advised — time after time after time. Now, Americans are unhappier than they’ve been in years. Anger is widespread, confidence in government is at near-historic lows, and the economy is hemorrhaging jobs.
Looking back to Washington’s words, it not only becomes clear that this sad state of affairs is a direct result of having ignored Washington’s advice, but is also suggests that Donald Trump’s success is due in large part to his desire to see the country once again follow those words of wisdom.
“Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground?” Washington asked. “Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice … It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.”
Trump echoes those words. “America First will be the major and overriding theme of my administration,” he said in his foreign policy speech in April. “We’re going to finally have a coherent foreign policy based upon American interests … Our moments of greatest strength came when politics ended at the water’s edge,” he added.
One of the biggest dangers Washington foresaw was the temptation for the body politic to divide itself into political parties or factions. “The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism,” Washington noted.
“The common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it,” he said. But within three years of his address, Congress would divide itself into parties, and a party-driven political system persists in America to this day. This system led directly to the nepotism in government and polarization in society, and has been a target of Trump’s ire.
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“I’m angry at our leaders [in both parties] for being grossly incompetent and not knowing,” Trump said of bad trade deals while campaigning in Indiana last Monday. He also paid tribute to the spirit of bipartisanship in his foreign policy speech. “Democrats and Republicans working together got Mr. Gorbachev to heed the words of President Reagan,” he noted.
Washington was also a big proponent of the Constitution and separation of powers — both things the federal government would begin to disregard less than a decade after Washington left office. “Towards the preservation of your government, and the permanency of your present happy state, it is requisite … that you resist with care the spirit of innovation upon its principles, however specious the pretexts.”
“It is important,” he continued, that “those entrusted with [the country’s] administration … confine themselves within their respective constitutional spheres, avoiding in the exercises of the powers of one department to encroach upon another.”
Today, both the Constitution and separation of powers are things that the Establishments of both political parties view with barely concealed disdain. Executive overreach has been a defining feature of almost every presidency since Washington’s, and while Trump has implied he would make use of executive action if necessary, he has expressed a willingness to work with Congress and has a much healthier respect for the Constitution than Obama.
“I see the Constitution as set in stone. I see it as one of the great documents of all time,” Trump told Anderson Cooper in March.
Washington also hated the accumulation of debt — something at which both parties have excelled, creating the toxic environment of debt ceiling increases and government shutdowns which has further increased political polarization.
“As a very important source of strength and security, cherish public credit,” he said. Washington also warned not to throw “upon posterity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear.” Now, thanks to the spendthrift Bush and Obama administrations, the country’s national debt is fast approaching $20 trillion.
Trump has made frequent mention of the need to get the country’s $19 trillion-and-growing debt under control. “We have to get rid of the $19 trillion in debt,” Trump says in a video message on his campaign site. The debt is “so unfair — so totally unfair — to our young people. We are not going to leave you with that burden.”
On trade, Washington said that “the great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible.” Unfortunately, trade deals subject to supranational bodies like the World Trade Organization inevitably necessitate political connection and result in a loss of sovereignty. Both Trump and Bernie Sanders have made opposition to such trade deals central to their campaigns.
“NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement], as an example, has been a total disaster for the U.S. and has emptied our states of our manufacturing and our jobs,” Trump said in his foreign policy speech. “Never again. Only the reverse will happen. We will keep our jobs and bring in new ones. Their will be consequences for companies that leave the U.S. only to exploit it later.”
“Americans must know that we are putting the American people first again. On trade … the jobs, incomes, and security of the American worker will always be my first priority,” Trump promised.
A Warning for Trump
But in addition to an almost prophetic ability to foresee all the wrong turns the country might take (and unfortunately did), George Washington was also an exceedingly moral man and a stickler for decorum. When he was still a teenager he transcribed 110 “Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior In Company and Conversation.”
Below are just a few of those rules:
“Do not puff up the cheeks, loll not out the tongue rub the hands, or beard, thrust out the lips, or bite them or keep the Lips too open or too close.”
“Reproach none for the infirmities of Nature, nor delight to put them that have in mind thereof.”
“Show not yourself glad at the misfortune of another though he were your enemy.”
“Use no reproachful language against any one neither curse nor revile.”
“A Man ought not to value himself of his Achievements.”
“Speak not injurious words neither in jest nor earnest scoff at none although they give occasion.”
Clearly, Trump is not particularly wise in the ways of decorous behavior, having broken each of these rules at least once during the course of the campaign. Indeed, the inescapable truth is that Trump has repeatedly said things that in Washington’s time would have resulted in his being called out and shot.
Trump’s early scuffle with Megyn Kelly and poor decision to re-tweet an unflattering image of Heidi Cruz, among other things, were enough to damage his reputation among women, and it is likely that without those and other missteps, Trump would have wrapped up the GOP nomination weeks ago. Calling an opponent “lyin'” or “low-energy” is one thing, but belittling a journalist with thinly veiled references to her sex and insulting an opponent’s wife is another thing entirely.
Trump has charisma and energy in spades, but these may not be enough in a general election campaign, especially if Trump faces Hillary Clinton, who can always cry sexism. Nor will they be enough to persuade those already turned off by his indecorous speech to vote for him.
Trump has said for months now that he will be “more presidential” once he receives the nomination. Now that he is presumptive nominee, he should take the teenaged Washington’s advice — his 110th and final rule — and “labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.”