Frost, Trump & Constitution On Fire

David D. Robbins Jr.

The swearing in of the forty-fifth president of the United States will be without poetry in more ways than one. Befitting the inauguration of Donald Trump, it is apropos this negation of verse at today’s ceremony comes only a day after The Hill newspaper published a story about a myriad of heavy cuts to government spending, including the National Endowment of the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Famed American poet Robert Frost, who in January of 1961 read “The Gift Outright” at the Democratic senator from Massachusetts John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, was known for being a man of form, who believed in structure, including rules to the game of meter and poetic style as well as a foundation to life itself. Frost wrote, “There is at least so much good in the world that it admits of form and the making of form. And not only admits of it, but calls for it. We people are thrust forward out of the suggestions of form in the rolling clouds of nature. In us nature reaches its height of form and through us exceeds itself. When in doubt there is always form for us to go on with.” Applied to today, one could say that man is a noble thing, the showcase of nature, and at the very least we always have core values to fall back on — well, until the emergence of Trump. He’s corroded that form and built a constituency less concerned with upholding self-evident truths than in sending their victor into Washington, D.C. with a suicide vest strapped to his chest, obliterating everything that makes this country great while paradoxically claiming his actions will “Make America Great Again”.

Understandably, much of the focus is concentrated on hacking and what Trump will do with his new-found power. He’s shown no aptitude or desire to learn the job, as outgoing President Barack Obama pointed out while stumping for Hillary Clinton. He continues to wear vulgarity like a badge of honor. He’s been the King of Birtherism. Laughs at sexual assault. He tweets about Saturday Night Live, Broadway and the concluded election as if he was still running for president, noting his crowd sizes and arguing via social media about the merits and extent of his victory. So far, his cabinet nominees have been a who’s-who list of worst candidates in American history. His selection for education secretary, Betsy “Grizzly” Devos, is a utter incompetent who couldn’t tell the difference between “proficiency” and “growth” when skewered embarrassingly by Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn) in a confirmation hearing. Dr. Ben Carson was picked to head HUD, despite having as much experience in housing as he does empathy for those struggling to put a roof over their heads. Other pundits, Democrats and journalists are focused on his possible connections to Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. But a more fundamental question might be to ask what American values, systems and forms Trump may have already destroyed forever. (Or at least to think hard about what we’re going to do to restore them.)

Robert Frost reading “The Gift Outright.” on a cold and sunny day for the inaugural of John F. Kennedy in 1961. He planned to read “Dedication” before it, but hadn’t had time to memorize the 42 lines.

No candidate will ever feel the need to release their tax returns, giving the American electorate a glimpse into the financial dealings of a nominee. Gone is the need to create a coherent platform during the primary or general election, if declaring you’re building a wall along the Southern border and insulting your opponents with childish nicknames like “Lying Ted”, “Low-Energy Jeb”, “Little Marco Rubio” and “Crooked Hillary” are the full effort needed to win the presidency fueled by the noisy populist clamor of a willfully deaf, dumb and blind electorate.

The First Amendment is being lit aflame too, as Team Trump blacklisted news organizations throughout the campaign, ranging from The Washington Post, CNN, Buzzfeed, The Des Moines Register, Politico and more. The campaign even thought of moving the press briefing room, and Trump has suggested giving press credentials to minor fake news sites, a move that would equate the power of GatewayPundit (a site that’s posted Holocaust denying stories) with that of The Los Angeles Times. It’s a sad irony when journalists trying to uphold individuals’ freedoms are attacked not only by a candidate, but also by the people whose liberties they’re trying to protect. Trump is playing with fire. And this time around, the Constitution is highly flammable. It’s Trump’s desire is to be rid of the First Amendment, the writers it protects, as well as our poets.

When Frost accepted Kennedy’s invitation he wrote to the President Elect that he was “honored” that the world of writing and poetry could blend with the world of statesmen. Frost even humorously added this charming political note about his ancestry to end his written reply:“It will please my family to the fourth generation and my family of friends and, were they living, it would have pleased inordinately the kind of Grover Cleveland Democrats I had for parents.” 

But Trump has already put the corruption-fighting Cleveland campaign slogan “A public office is a public trust” to shame before he has even had a single day in office. Most importantly in this list of things lost in the new Trumpamerica, apparently, is the need to meet the requirements of the U.S. Constitution. Trump refuses to divest himself of his company holdings, ignoring Article 1, Section 9, Clause 8 — better known as the “Emoluments Clause” — at his own peril:

“No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.”

The Founding Fathers had a number of fears leading them to the creation of the U.S. Constitution: A lack of taxing power and commerce control in the Articles of Confederation and another significant anxiety — foreign interference in the U.S. political system via “emoluments”, or benefits derived from making deals with other countries. Trump is shadowed by a number of concerning issues, whether it be his hundreds of LLCs, Trump Towers in Istanbul, business interests through a friend in the Philippines, Trump Tower-New York’s biggest tenant (essentially the Chinese government) has a lease coming up, or the hundreds of millions of dollars he owes Deutsche Bank and Goldman Sachs. Trump also has some domestic problems, with 10 cases before the National Labor Relations Board challenging his companies’ labor practices. Then there’s his long-famous IRS audit. In the latter two instances, Trump will be appointing vacancies on the very boards that will be making judgments on whether or not he has broken the law.

When Trump takes the oath of office he will be in direct conflict with the Constitution. As a former law student with a specialty in the study of Constitutional law, this is of little debate to me — and legal scholars more talented than myself — like Harvard’s Constitutional Law Professor Laurence Tribe, former White House Council Norman L. Eisen (2009-2011) and former Chief White House ethics lawyer from 2005 to 2007 Richard Painter agree. As their joint Brookings Institution paper, written in December of last year says: “private financial interests can subtly sway even the most virtuous leaders” — let alone Trump.

There is some precedent for how to view the “Emoluments Clause”. At the Virginia Ratifying Convention in 1788, President George Washington’s then-Secretary of State Edmund Jennings Randolph described the clause as applying to the President, suggesting impeachment as the punishment for breaking the law: “There is another provision against the danger mentioned by the honorable member, of the president receiving emoluments from foreign powers. If discovered he may be impeached. If he be not impeachable he may be displaced at the end of the four years … I consider, therefore, that he is restrained from receiving any present or emoluments whatever. It is impossible to guard better against corruption.”

Trump does have an easy solution, to divest all of his interests, but won’t do it because he appears to relish running his companies more than he does the idea of being president of the United States. There are well-known cases of officials taking such action. Former Goldman Sachs CEO Henry Paulson sold about $500 million worth of Goldman Sachs stock in 2006 after the U.S. Senate voted to confirm his appointment as U.S. Treasury Secretary under then-President George W. Bush. But Trump’s tax attorney, Sheri Dillon’s argues that the public simply must trust them to do the right thing. But how can a country trust a man with no morals, no shame and no self control?

In a speech given at the 28th annual Commencement at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, on June 7, 1956, Frost asks aloud to the audience what the American Dream is and what it boils down to. He said: “I wonder what the dream is, or why. I wonder who dreamed it? Did Tom Paine dream it, did Thomas Jefferson dream it, did George Washington dream it?” And then he landed on an answer: “The best dreamer of it was Madison,” Frost said. “Now I know — I think I know — what Madison’s dream was. It was just a dream of a new land to fulfill with people in self-control. That is all through his thinking. To fulfill this land — a new land — with people in self-control.”

Frost’s distillation of James’s Madison’s vision is pretty remarkable. Self-control. Technically, what he means is self government. But more specifically, as citizens of a free country, we’re asked to do something remarkable. To exercise control of our wants and moderate our demands so others can enjoy liberty too.

So, how does this out-of-control president-elect get away with all he has, especially running roughshod over the Constitution? Well, for starters, he was voted into office by an electorate that cares nothing for the document, hasn’t really studied it, doesn’t care about his lack of character, temperament or even his campaign promises. Already, one of Trump’s most well-known phrases “Drain the Swamp”, has been turned on its head after he selected at least six people associated with Goldman Sachs to be part of his administration. Treasury Secretary nominee Steven Mnuchin spent 17 years at the firm, White House adviser and alt-right advocate Steve Bannon worked there before heading to Breitbart and transition adviser Anthony Scaramucci worked at the company for 7 years. Sachs is no longer being called in for hearings, but rather they’re players again, ready to work to further the Trump agenda. What do Trump’s supporters think about this shift from the campaign rhetoric? Isn’t Trump so smart for bringing in so many guys that know about money.

The story goes that Frost had actually been inspired the day of the inaugural to write a unique poem for JFK, to be read before the one Kennedy requested, but it was 42 lines and he hadn’t the time to memorize it. (He was 86-years-old and his eyesight was bad, so he was unable to read off a piece of paper.) The poem was called “Dedication” — a word that suggests both a memoriam and steadfastness. Though he never did get to read it on that windy January day, we do have the finished poem printed in his collected works. In it he writes: “Firm in our free beliefs without dismay, / In any game the nations want to play. / A golden age of poetry and power / Of which this noonday’s the beginning hour.” While we won’t be getting any poetry this noon, and this day would have certainly saddened and enraged the New England poet — we can take refuge in the will of millions of Americans firm in their free beliefs. And that as a collective we will do everything we can to stop a demagogue from destroying the framework of this country, its inclusiveness, its ingenuity, its freedoms, its Constitution and the poetry of its past and future.

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