I once wrote a hymn of praise to the achievements of the founding fathers. Theres still much to celebrate but their inspirational vision needs an urgent update, writes Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland
Theres a million things to love about Hamilton, the musical that has opened in London to reviews as glowing as those that greeted its debut on Broadway. The lyrics are so ingenious, so intricate and dexterous, that the shows creator,Lin-Manuel Miranda, has a claim tobe among the most exciting writers, in any medium, in the world today. Rarely have I seen an audience delight in the tricks and rhyming pyrotechnics of language the way I saw a preview audience react to Hamilton a fortnightago.
As I say, there are countless other pleasures. The staging is inventive, the melodies memorable and, by having black and minority ethnic actors play Alexander Hamilton and his fellow founding fathers, the musical instantly offers a powerful new take on Americas tragic, enduring flaw: race. But it was the idealism of the show which venerates Hamilton and George Washington and unabashedly romanticises the revolution that birthed the United States of America that struck a particular chordfor me.
In 2018, it will be 20 years since I published a book called Bring Home the Revolution. Begun when I was still in my 20s, it too was an essay in idealism, arguing that the American uprising of 1776 and the constitution that followed in 1787 were a rebellion against a system of government under which we Britons still laboured two centuries later albeit with an overmighty, overcentralised government in place of the bewigged King George.
The American revolution, I argued, was our inheritance, a part of our patrimony mislaid across the Atlantic. From a written constitution to a system of radically devolved power to the replacement of monarchy with an elected head of state, it was time for us to bring home the revolution that we had made in America.
With impeccable timing, my hymn of praise for the US constitution appeared a matter of months before what looked a lot like a US constitutional crisis, with the impeachment of Bill Clinton over perjury charges arising from his denials of a relationship with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. So you want us to live the American dream? one interviewer asked. All a bit of nightmare now, isnt it?
That, or something like it, has happened at intervals ever since. If it wasnt a hideous, only-in-America mass shooting, it would be an election in which a man with fewer votes defeated an infinitely more qualified opponent who had won more.
Usually, I have managed to deflect these challenges, arguing that my book was a homage to a founding ideal, not to the necessarily flawed reality. But its time for me to admit my doubts about its core idea its admiration for the US constitution and system of government. For this first year of the Donald Trump presidency has exposed two flaws in the model that I cannot brush asidesoeasily.
The first is that Trump has vividly demonstrated that much of what keeps a democracy intact is not enshrined in the written letter of a constitution, but resides instead in customs and conventions norms that are essentialto civic wellbeing. Trump trampled all over those as a candidate refusingto disclose his tax returns, for example and has trampled over even more aspresident.
Convention dictated that he had to divest himself of private business concerns on taking office, to prevent a conflict of interest but in the absence of a law explicitly forcing him to do so, he did no such thing. The same goes for appointing unqualified relatives to senior jobs, sacking the director of the FBI with no legitimate cause, or endorsing an accused child molester for the US Senate. No law told him he couldnt, sohe did.
I once thought the US constitution a document crafted with almost mathematical precision, constructing a near-perfect equilibrium of checks and balances offered protection against such perils. And theres no denying that that text, as interpreted by the courts, has indeed acted as a partial roadblock in Trumps path, delaying and diluting his Muslim-focused travel ban, forexample.
But this year of Trump has also shown the extent to which the US has an unwritten constitution that just like ours relies on the self-restraint of the key political players, a self-restraint usually insisted upon by a free press. Yet when confronted with a leader unbound by any sense of shame and shamelessness might just be Trumps defining quality America is left unexpectedly vulnerable.
Of course, there is a remedy, and its name is impeachment. Scholars are clear that Trump has already provided sufficient legal grounds for such a move the case against him is far more compelling than the one against Bill Clinton. But impeachment proceedings are triggered by the House of Representatives, followed by a trial in the Senate, and nothing will happen so long as Republicans control both houses of Congress.
In 2017 we saw with new clarity that the strength of the US constitution depends entirely on the willingness of those charged with enforcing it to do their duty. And todays Republicans refuse to fulfil that obligation. They, like Trump, are without shame. This was a fatal oversight by Hamilton, James Madison and their fellow framers of the constitution. They did not reckon on a partisanship so intense it would blind elected representatives to the national interest so that they would, repeatedly, put party ahead of country. The founders did not conceive of a force like todays Republican party, willing to indulge a president nakedly hostile to ideals Americans once heldsacred.