What The Founders Understood about Foreign Influence and Corruption— and what They Missed

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The framers of our Republic saw how a lot of things could go wrong with their designs, and they built in safeguards and course corrections to help us get back on track when power does what power always does.

They knew, for example, that foreign nations would be eager to influence our politics. And at the time, foreign nations were all around us: the British in Canada, the French in Louisiana, the Spanish in Florida and Mexico, and just about everyone in the Caribbean. The United States was geographically huge and resource-rich. But we were also poor, deeply in debt, industrially weak, and militarily non-existent —just the sort of junior nation that the great powers of the 18th century loved to try to turn into client states.

The Founders recognized foreign interference in our electoral processes. Alexander Hamilton addresses this directly in the 68th Federalist. Perhaps the worst threat the he could imagine to the Republic was a chief executive that had been compromised by a foreign power:

Nothing was more to be desired than that every practicable obstacle should be opposed to cabal, intrigue, and corruption. These most deadly adversaries of republican government might naturally have been expected to make their approaches from more than one quarter, but chiefly from the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils. How could they better gratify this, than by raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union?

The Constitution includes safeguards against presidents with foreign ties. This is why, for example, a president has to have born in the United States — to decrease the possibilities of divided loyalties. And the Emoulments Clause (Article I, Section 9) prohibits executives from receiving anything of value from a foreign government — including, as it turns out, campaign help.

Another thing that the Framers knew was that, if our democracy lasted long enough, we were guaranteed to elect a classical demagogue to the presidency. Demagogues — those who win power by democratic means and then work from the inside to destroy the institutions that protect against dictatorship — are the special problem of democracy and have been since the Golden Age of Athens. Demagogues exploit the greatest design flaw in the idea of democracy: if the people can vote for anything they want, they can vote to stop being a democracy.

Donald Trump is a classic, straight-from-central-casting demagogue of the sort described by James Fenimore Cooper in 1838. He checks every one of the boxes: attacks immigrants and outsiders, blames all social problems on “the elite,” construes all forms of criticism as crimes against the state, undermines democratic institutions in the name of “majority rule,” and presents all political opponents as enemies who must be vanquished. It is a very old role, and our current president has not improved on the type. But neither has he missed a beat while playing it.

In order to protect against demagogues and the political corruption that invariably comes with them, the Founders took everything that could be construed as the power to govern and spit it up into a million tiny pieces: state and federal, legislative, executive, judicial, subject to plebiscite, removed from direct elections. Everybody checks everybody else. It would be nearly impossible, they thought, for a single demagogue, no matter how corrupt, to bring all of this power together.

It was a great solution to a classic problem, and it would have worked if it hadn’t been for political parties.

Political parties weren’t supposed to happen. Madison makes the case clearly and brilliantly in Federalist #10, perhaps the best and most important of all the Federalist Papers. Permanent factions, Madison knew, shift the people’s loyalty from their particular piece of political power to a set of fixed ideologies. If a President ever became nothing more than the leader of a single faction, the whole system could fall apart.

And this is what they missed when they tried to make sure that foreign powers never influenced our elections. The knew that there would always be foreign leaders trying to influence our elections; and they knew that there would eventually be a president willing to permit, and even ask them to do so. But they could not imagine — and were unwilling even to entertain the thought of — a legislative body so tied to a partisan ideology that they would willingly surrender their own power to a demagogue.

This is especially true of the Senate, which was designed to hold enough power to counterbalance the executive. Senators were originally not elected directly. They were appointed every six years by state legislatures so that they would always represent the interests of the state and the legislative branch of government. And they had the power to remove a president who had become hostile to these interests or those of the Republic.

For the separation of powers to work, the powers have to want to be separate. The Founders knew all about con artists, and they understood that a good con needs shills and decoys — but they designed the Senate for greater things. Our Constitution cannot operate the way it should when the world’s greatest deliberative body becomes a room full of Mitch McConnells and Lindsay Grahams who aspire to nothing grander than carrying water for a demagogue.

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