Revisiting George Washington’s Farewell Address in the Age of Trump - by Peter Dunphy
America is in a moment of domestic turbulence hitherto unseen in living memory. Donald Trump’s accession into the White House and subsequent policy enactments (or lack thereof) have left many citizens and residents of the United States questioning whether they are welcome in this country anymore.
As converging forces coalesce to generate a magnitude nine earthquake, rupturing open pre-existing fault lines in American society, let’s take this moment to recede into the solace of the first Executive of our country, George Washington. Washington served as the first President of the United States from 1789 to 1797, winning the Electoral College unanimously both times. He continues to serve as the national hero in the epic of our Revolutionary struggle against the British and the formation of the Early Republic. A geographic inquiry illuminates the deep memorialization Washington has received throughout the entirety of this country: 31 counties, 241 civil townships, a state, the nation’s capital, and 11 universities hold Washington’s namesake.
Washington’s lasting advice for the future of the young United States came from his farewell address given at the conclusion of his second, and final, term. This speech is studied ubiquitously throughout primary and secondary schools in this country. Every year on Washington’s birthday, February 22, the speech is read on the Senate floor. Although we perennially read the text that Washington wrote, we do not heed the advice nor warnings he puts forth. With this in mind, let’s re-read the words that Washington wrote in 1796 and see what implications they may hold 221 years later. Let’s see what guidance the first President of the United States may give the 45th.
Washington cautioned his countrymen against foreign entanglements and influence, but the chief fear the first Commander-in-Chief addressed was political parties and partisanship. At the time of his writing, the previously united United States had begun diverging into two political camps: Federalists, led by John Adams, and Democratic-Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson. Partisanship, according to Washington, is an existential threat to the young republic. He lambasts the institutions of parties, writing that they, “Serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels and modified by mutual interests.”
Partisanship, in the run-up and following Washington’s address, represented a benign cancer on the American Republic. In the past twenty years, however, American parties have metastasized to a late-Stage 4. According to all metrics, the level of polarization between the two American parties has reached unparalleled heights. Public approval of the three-headed American federal government—the Supreme Court, Congress, and the President—are at historic lows. Divisions on policy increasingly represent divisions among people, on race, class, education, geography. A concerning Pew poll from last August found that very few Clinton or Trump supporters had close friends on the other side. The gulf that separates Republican from Democrat has grown into an ocean.
The belligerency between D.C. Republicans and Democrats quite possibly reached its dystopian zenith in President Trump’s reaction to the future of Obamacare after House Republicans’ disastrous attempt at repeal and replace. Following Paul Ryan’s last minute pulling of the extremely unpopular American Healthcare Act because he lacked sufficient votes from within his own party, Trump took to the stage to signal the dawn of a new era of how partisanship will affect American people. He stated, “The best thing we can do politically speaking is let Obamacare explode.” He relegated enacted federal law in the ACA to simply partisan policy, “[Democrats] own it, 100 percent own it. And this is not a Republican healthcare. This is not anything but a Democrat healthcare.” Realize this: Trump is announcing here that he will sabotage and hurt American people, make them lose health care and willingly work to increase premiums, all for his own political gains. George Washington foresaw such partisan tactics, writing, “all obstructions to the execution of the laws, all combinations and associations, under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities, are destructive of this fundamental principle, and of fatal tendency.” The “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” to quote another President etched onto Mount Rushmore, seems to have perished from the earth. Instead, we have a government willing to exercise abuses against its own polity in search of partisan gains.
Finally, this leads us to Washington’s timely warning about political parties: they leave the nation susceptible to attacks by foreign adversaries. Written into his address, he notes, “Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government.” Foreign governments can better penetrate into our nation when they can take advantage of divisions already created through parties.
There can be no question: Russia is this foreign influence attempting to interfere with democratic governments, both here in the U.S. and in Europe. Russian operatives hacked into the DNC. James Comey recently disclosed at a House Intelligence Committee hearing that the FBI is investigating ties between the Russian government and the Trump campaign. Yet, as with so many issues in contemporary U.S. government, it quickly turned partisan. Devin Nunes, the Republican chair of the committee, ran documents to the White House before sharing with his own committee because “I felt like I had a duty and obligation to tell [Trump], because, as you know, he’s taking a lot of heat in the news media.”
Although Nunes later apologized, his action irreversibly shot the confidence of the House Intelligence Committee to conduct an investigation properly. I am not asserting fault as of now on the Trump administration. As of now, no ‘smoking gun’ information has been brought into the public’s eye that would provide grounds for impeachment. However, Nunes tainted the House investigation with partisanship. Even his recent recusal from the investigation cannot absolve this. The only option left to imbue trust of a full and proper investigation is to create a select committee, as Senator John McCain called for. Let’s not let partisanship normalize foreign interference in the elections of the United States. On essential matters such as the confidence that our government is legitimate, untampered by foreign enemies, partisanship must be dropped in favor of service for the American Republic. George Washington foresaw partisanship vitiating the newly democratic nation. May we reconcile our differences, at least a little, in order to not realize his biggest fear?