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Saint Mary’s panel explores Constitution, populism, Trump

| Thursday, September 22, 2016

Saint Mary’s and Bethel College history faculty discussed the Constitution, populism and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump during a panel for Constitution Week, proclaimed by President Barack Obama in recognition of the anniversary of the United States Constitution.

During the discussion, led by Saint Mary’s history professor Bill Svelmoe, Saint Mary’s political science department chair Marc Belanger said there are more demands on the Constitution as the world grows more complex.

“I’m not saying it’s outdated, but the inefficiencies stand out much more now,” he said.

Svelmoe said the inefficiency can lead to populist discontent, which can be seen throughout history as well as in this year’s presidential candidates.

“The first populist movement has regular folk rising up with some degree of discontent, and the second populist movements tends to have big solutions or big questions,” he said. “They don’t want to have incremental change; they want huge change.”

Saint Mary’s political science professor Pat Pierce said the writers of the Constitution did not want that polarized mindset in the government.

“What they really had in mind was a mixed constitution — it wasn’t straight democracy,” he said. “A pure democracy would inevitably fall apart.”

Pierce said the U.S. system is unusual in the power ordinary people have.

“Instead of relying on folks in the group of elites to make nominations, it is ordinary citizens,” he said. “Donald Trump would have never been nominated by the Republican party.”

John Haas, an associate professor of history at Bethel College, pointed out the implications of having an inexperienced politician like Trump in office.

“James Madison talked about how there’s a multiplying of factions,” he said. “When you inject an ego like Trump’s into the U.S. government, it’s a huge game changer. He’s going to rearrange everything.”

Pierce said the Constitution was based on fear of tyranny.

“They were intensely concerned with tyranny,” Pierce said. “It was why we had a mixed constitution. The way Trump is claiming he can build a wall, it’s as if tyranny doesn’t exist.”

Pierce said drastic political statements like Trump’s corrupt citizens.

“There’s a certain corruption of the public when the government works in a particular way,” he said. “Those kinds of statements corrupt [the] public, so we stop understanding the way the political system operates.”

Carol Halperin, an adjunct professor of history at Saint Mary’s, said if a president overshoots boundaries, the government can act.

“The Constitution provides the ability to impeach a president,” she said. “If he takes advantage, he can be removed.”

Pierce said the “corruption of the public” is partially due to the media.

“The kind of emotional manipulation through an outlet like Fox News, many of the conditions they believe exist, don’t,” Pierce said. “Their perception of reality is just so out of whack from what’s really going on.”

Svelmoe said the media is polarizing the nation.

“With the media, the way we fractured ourselves, our whole universe of facts is just completely different,” he said. “We’re whipping up this animosity for the other side.”

Halperin said Trump and Hillary Clinton are unlikely to reverse the trend of polarization.

“You know it’s bad when you find yourself starting to miss Richard Nixon,” she said. “He did have a presidential air about him, and the two candidates we have now are almost universally disliked.”

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