By: John Berthelsen

On November 19, President Donald J Trump seemingly got out of bed to suddenly announce that the cost of maintaining 28,500 troops on South Korean soil would quintuple from US$923 million to about US$5 billion per year.

In distressing exchange, South Korea said it would establish additional military hotlines with Beijing and agreed Seoul would “foster bilateral exchanges and cooperation in defense” with China, starting with a visit by South Korea’s defense minister to Beijing next year. That is an indication of how much trouble the alliance is in between the US and South Korea, an alliance that came into being in 1953 after the US lost nearly 40,000 dead (and South Korea lost 5 million), and that has served as one of the linchpins of the US presence in Asia for the past 66 years. The collapse of that agreement, and with similar troubles with the agreement in Japan, basically holds the danger of writing the end of the effective US presence in Asia.

That is an ominous development. But it is not nearly as ominous as the situation in the United States itself that has allowed it to happen — the utter and complete collapse of the separation of powers in the US government, which was born as a concept in July of 1787 with the publication of No. 51 of the Federalist Papers, written by James Madison, who played a pivotal role in writing the US Constitution, which was ratified and put into place in 1789.

Madison’s vision was that each branch of government – the Executive, the Legislative and the Judicial – would be framed so that the power of each would check the power of the other two and that each branch would be dependent upon the people, who are the source of legitimate authority.

“It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices [checks and balances] should be necessary to control the abuses of government,” Madison wrote in a passage that needs its fullest exposure. “But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”

That abiding Constitutional philosophy, which directed the course of government in the United States for 227 years and made it the envy of democracies the world over until 2016, has collapsed. The President is now said to be revisiting his determination to take the United States out of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as well, strengthening Russian influence in Europe by default. Once again, neither of the other two branches of government appears to be paying the slightest attention.

It is reasonable politically, if not morally, for the US Senate, controlled by Trump’s Republican allies 53-47, to fight the current impeachment battle to the end to keep him in power, because their own sway depends upon his. But on a long string of other decisions over the past 86 months, in which the Senate could have stopped a disastrous weakening of US power abroad and resulted in the ruination of government domestically, the upper house has stood silent and ignored the greater possibility of harm to the nation. 

The Supreme Court has also stood idly by on such decisions as Citizens United, which multiplied the pernicious influence of money in politics, and in an unrealistic interpretation of the second amendment on the right to keep and bear arms which for decades had been interpreted by the court as applying to a well-regulated militia. The 23-year-olds who slaughter children in schoolyards are hardly a part of a well-regulated militia.  

In Asia, the US has also been badly weakened not just by Congressional silence, but by the president’s executive order to end US participation in the omnibus Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, which was crafted to the US’s advantage, and to unilaterally carry out a disastrous trade war with China which has hamstrung US industry and agriculture, when if he had sought the cooperation of allies the US could have had a real impact on the trade situation and China’s predatory foreign investment rules.

Then there is this. On May 4, 2017, Trump signed an executive order “to defend the freedom of religion and speech” for the purpose of easing restrictions on the so-called Johnson Amendment, which bars religious organizations from endorsing or proposing political candidates, in direct contradiction of the First Amendment to the Constitution. That amendment, read by all schoolchildren and revered in other countries, states that: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

That is arguably the most important single provision in the Bill of Rights. But neither the judicial branch nor the Congress raised a single objection to the administration’s stated purpose of weakening this most elemental American right, to keep politics free from religion.

There are too many of these transgressions against the Constitution to go into here. But suffice it to say that Madison’s statement that “you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself” is no longer operative.

One has to ask not only how this came about but what to do about it. One of the biggest concerns is that neither the Senate nor the Presidency represents the true will of the people, and that is because in large measure of another major plank written into the Constitution. Suggested by James Morris, later one of the original justices appointed by George Washington to the Supreme Court, and a major force in drafting the Constitution, the Constitutional Convention agreed that electors from each of the individual states rather than the people would elect the president. Each state’s allotted electors equal the number of members in its congressional delegation – one for House member and two for the senators.

Because the United States at the time of the revolution was a loose confederation of states, it was thought that giving each one equal representation in the Senate would preserve states’ rights. And with the Electors deemed to be responsible citizens, it would also ensure against demagogues. But as populations shifted from largely equal representation in the original 13 states over the intervening years, the 550,000 residents of the state of Wyoming ended up with the same power in the Senate as California, with 39.5 million people – which fact has more people than 21 other states. Wyoming, in fact, is smaller in population than 31 of the US’s biggest cities. These least-populated states are almost all “red,” or in the hands of deep conservatives, who form a bulwark against action to stop the president from wrecking not only foreign policy but domestic policy as well.

As a result, in 2016, three red states guaranteed Trump’s election in the electoral college by a mere 70,000 votes despite a loss in the popular polls by 3 million votes. By one projection reelection could be delivered to him even if he were to lose 15 million votes if the red states were to choose him in the right combination.

It is clear where the injustice lies for individual voters, who in other parts of the constitution are guaranteed equal representation. In California, until 1964 the 6 million people of Los Angeles County were represented by one state senator, while the 397 voters of Alpine county had the same representation. However, the United States Supreme Court, headed by Chief Justice Earl Warren, decided in Reynolds v. Simms that such skewed representation violated the concept of equal representation. As a result, with court-ordered reapportionment, today the first state senate district covers all or part of 11 counties. Los Angeles County has 14 state senators.

The time has long passed since the United States was a nation of sovereign states. Wyoming has no more right to sovereignty today than Alpine County did in 1964. Since the creation of the interstate highway system by Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s and a growing list of other developments including the Internet and national television networks, the country has long been bound into a single entity, its individual state governments no more than administrative units.

It is time for the courts to recognize that and make the 50 states equally represent their voters, or for the people to pass a constitutional amendment nullifying the electoral college. It was after all 127 years ago that a Christian minister named Francis Bellamy, in writing the Pledge to the Flag, declared the United States to be “one nation, indivisible, with freedom and justice for all.”

There are obviously other steps that must be taken. The pernicious influence of money on politics has allowed oligarchs, most of them from the conservative right, to dictate representation that does not represent the will of the people.

But the process must be started. Trump’s ominous unilateral declaration that signaled a pullback from the US commitment to maintain a military presence in South Korea shows that the exercise of congressional and judicial authority to check such a dangerous move by a president is exactly what was meant to be addressed by the separation of powers. That separation of the executive, legislative and judicial branches has been stretched many times in the US’s history but has never totally broken until now.