The rapidly expanding scope of the COVID-19 pandemic has put the ultimate stress test on our country’s institutions. While doing so, the contagion continues to expose the strengths and weaknesses of those very institutions.
Among the most troublesome discoveries so far is that, although the United States has one of the best health care systems in the world, our government was not adequately prepared for the pandemic. The failure of government in this difficult chapter of our country must serve as a cautionary tale, one calling us to reconsider the architecture and structure of our very democracy.
Lost among the angst of living in uncharted times, in a halted economy that has touched the lives of every single North Carolinian, is a fundamental issue of how federal, state and local governments are supposed to function. Each section of government is uniquely charged, in times of both crisis and peace, with providing certain necessary safeguards and relief to the constituencies they serve. Embedded in the structural issue of government doing its job is an overlooked bedrock set of principles of how government in a constitutional democracy is supposed to operate.
Right now, those bedrock principles could not be more important. Our reliance on government in times of great pain and peril calls for inspired, competent and, I would submit, constitutionally grounded leaders at all levels of government — particularly in the president of the United States. Donald Trump has failed to provide that leadership.
We have heard the president exclaim his perception of total presidential power at a time when we needed reassurance in our country’s leadership, and our future. He has repeatedly ignored Congress, issued unprecedented executive orders and made unilateral decisions, shoving the 10th Amendment and the states’ rights it protects into irrelevance.
He has bullied our country’s governors, threatening manipulation of federal relief based on who does and does not support him politically. And the list goes on.
He has even suggested we drink bleach to abate the virus.
For registered Republicans like myself who have worked to build and support the Republican Party, we are increasingly dismayed by the failures of this president. This is not only because of his floundering responses to the pandemic, but his continual grasping for power, to the exclusion of our Congress, state governments, local governments, even the subject of science itself.
Most importantly, his actions are in complete disregard of our Constitution and the founding principles of America. In governing, it is not just about making “right” decisions. It is about understanding and appreciating those core constitutional concepts like separation of powers, and the rights and roles of state governments under our Constitution.
The president must be a bellwether of moral leadership for our citizens, and arguably, the world. He also must demonstrate the capacity to make tough, sometimes unpopular decisions; decisions that impact the lives and well-being of the country. Decisions must be made to “promote the general welfare,” as the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution charges. We cannot, we must not, accept decisions made for political and personal self-aggrandizement.
George Washington, in his Farewell Address to the nation in 1796, warned his fellow citizens of the dangers that could arise. “The disorders and miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty.”
While our nation is ever mindful of the dangers from this pandemic and the ensuing economic fallout, our citizens must also be both mindful and watchful for the dangers George Washington warned us about 224 years ago — dangers embodied by Donald Trump. We can and must do better.
Bob Orr is a retired N.C. Supreme Court justice. He was the first Republican to win a statewide judicial race in the 20th century and won four statewide races over the course of 18 years. Orr has also taught a course on the N.C. Constitution at UNC School of Law since 2002.