Power and Accountability: Parashat Shof’tim Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9

It is surprising to many to read how excellent a guide to politics the Book of Deuteronomy is. Parashat Shof’tim is at the heart of biblical political theory which roots politics in the rule of law and the rule of law in the pursuit of justice. “Justice, justice shall you pursue that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Eternal your God has given you.” (Deuteronomy 16:20) The U.S. Constitution mirrors precisely this precept. The people of the United States are constituted to form a more perfect union and “establish justice” to “insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” (Preamble U.S. Constitution)

The slogan of the Donald Trump regime has been, “Make America Great Again” and definitely not make America one again. There is no political biblical imperative to pursue greatness.  The slogan of the Joe Biden campaign is, “Make America whole again.” The object should be to unite the nation, not sew divisiveness. The object should be to provide a sense of normalcy not disruption and chaos. That requires attending to the security of the population (including domestic security from police violence), promoting the welfare of society and the liberty for all.

Yes, welfare. America must be a welfare state. The government is obligated to take care of the health and the education of its citizenry and ensure that the members of society have the jobs and the economic opportunities to do that. A society with thirty million unemployed does not do that. A society in which the government fails to provide strong leadership in defeating the coronavirus does not do that. A government that allows over 170,000 of its citizens to die in a pandemic to date does not do that. A government with 4% of the world’s population but 25% of the deaths resulting from a pandemic does not do that. A President who attacks and tries to remove the protections of The Affordable Care Act does not do that.

The more perfect union is a goal not a given. It presumes imperfection. It presumes that leaders will err. As Barack Obama said in his Wednesday evening speech, “I’m in Philadelphia, where our Constitution was drafted and signed. It wasn’t a perfect document. It allowed for the inhumanity of slavery and failed to guarantee women — and even men who didn’t own property — the right to participate in the political process. But embedded in this document was a North Star that would guide future generations; a system of representative government — a democracy — through which we could better realize our highest ideals. Through civil war and bitter struggles, we improved this Constitution to include the voices of those who’d once been left out. And gradually, we made this country more just, more equal and more free.”

But the Constitution also presumes that politicians will be accountable for their errors. The most significant characteristic of the Trump regime is the refusal of Trump to acknowledge let alone take ownership of the many mistakes he has made and the gross inadequacy of his government. The president is accountable to the people not the people to kowtow to the president’s will.

In the spirit world of Donald Trump, in the fabulist world to which he belongs, participants can attend rallies protesting the wearing of masks or taking tests. Everyday people “can be reborn, leaving their world behind and subscribing to a new collective truth. This is where they find fellowship with other people who are upset enough about the same things, who hold the same fears and frustrations. This is where isolation ends, where communion begins.” (Leah Sottile, The New York Times) This is where freedom can be worshipped and fairness can be trashed, where lies can be spread and accountability ignored, where the Three Percenters and the followers of Q’Anon hang out and where a New World Order purportedly imposed on them can be resisted, where idolatry is the temper of the time. This is where we find Boogaloo and the expectation of an immanent cataclysm and even a new race war. The movement is anti-government, anti-law and anti-authority of any kind. They assemble purportedly to resist unconstitutional oppression. In the name of freedom, they subvert the rule of law and even the Constitution they supposedly proclaim to defend.

In Deuteronomy, in contrast, the president or the governing judges must “govern the people with due justice, with mishpat-tzedek.” (12:18) However, the bipartisan report of the Senate on Russian interference in the American 2016 election showed that the head of the Trump election campaign took bribes. Trump himself very recently retweeted part of a Russian campaign against Joe Biden. The current activities of the government in voter suppression, in opposing mail-in ballots, in falsely claiming that the system was subject to widespread fraud is clear evidence of an intention to bias the election rather than ensure fairness as obligated by Deuteronomy.

“You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the Lord your God has given you, and they shall govern the people with due justice.” (Deuteronomy 16:18) There must be fairness in the selection process and fairness in the administration. “You shall not judge unfairly; you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes.” (16:19)

In accordance with the biblical injunction to select a king to rule over yourself, that king must not be a foreigner imposed on the people but one who comes from the people. According to the American constitution, he or she must be born in the United States or of parents with American citizenship. Only a non- king, only a pseudo king who is not from the people, would falsely challenge a rival for not being eligible. Hence, birtherism. Hence the charge that Barack Obama was not born in the USA. Hence the suggestion that Kamala Harris who was born in the United States but of parents who lacked citizenship at the time was not eligible.

The Americans in the 2016 election did not heed the advice to be wary of false prophets. They elected a diviner who insisted that COVID-19 would simply disappear. They elected a soothsayer who refused to face up to the facts and the rampant epidemic racing across the land. They chose a president who had more confidence in sorcerers than in scientists. They elected a leader who praised right-wing activist and GOP nominee in Florida, Laura Loomer, who boasted that she was a “ProudIslamaphobe,” who calls Muslims savages and contributed to the conspiracy site, Infowars. She claimed that the Sandy Hook massacre and the Parkland mass shooting were both hoaxes, a claim, which according to G.T. Lewis, a GOP candidate from Connecticut whose brother was murdered at Sandy Hook, made Loomer unacceptable as a GOP candidate.

But Donald Trump welcomed her victory as a candidate. Voters for Trump failed to heed the advice to “let no one be found among you who…is an augur, a soothsayer, a diviner, a sorcerer, one who casts spells, or one who consults ghosts or familiar spirits.” (18:10-11)

The ruler chosen by the people must be a man or woman of the people and not be one who has dedicated his life to amassing personal wealth (the ruler shall not “amass silver and gold to excess.” Deuteronomy 17:17) and use his political position to protect that wealth and increase it. The Emoluments Clause (Article I, Section 9, Paragraph 8) of the U.S. Constitution prohibits federal officeholders from receiving any gift, payment, or any other thing of value from a foreign state or its rulers, officers, or representatives. But that is precisely what Trump’s minions did. And what Trump himself did. He did not need to conspire with the Russians to corrupt the American election. He needed only to openly benefit from that corruption. Trump went beyond that and welcomed the assistance.

While Deuteronomy advises that a ruler keep a copy of Deuteronomy, and specifically the political maxims guiding rule, by his or her side so that its contents might be regularly consulted (17:18), it does not advise the use of the volume as a prop for a photo-op in front of a church. What matters is reading the volume for guidance not holding the closed book aloft and upside down while your militias and federal officers club peaceful demonstrators.

“The one constitutional office elected by all of the people is the presidency. So at minimum, we should expect a president to feel a sense of responsibility for the safety and welfare of all 330 million of us — regardless of what we look like, how we worship, who we love, how much money we have — or who we voted for. But we should also expect a president to be the custodian of this democracy. We should expect that regardless of ego, ambition or political beliefs, the president will preserve, protect and defend the freedoms and ideals that so many Americans marched for and went to jail for; fought for and died for.”

The king should be humble and not arrogant insisting that he is wiser than all his generals and advisers. If he fails as a ruler, he must be removed from office. Even before his term is up, he can and should be removed. Section four of Article II of the Constitution allows a process of removal from office “on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” And when legislators, such as American senators, subvert that process, they too must be removed from office at the next election.

Barack Obama, uniquely for an ex-president, finally laid into his successor. This is not a normal Convention. Times demanded the custom of courtesy be set aside. Donald Trump has been an existential threat to democracy and to the Constitution. Obama had hoped that Trump would rise to the task but had utterly failed — “and didn’t really even try.”

“I did hope, for the sake of our country, that Donald Trump might show some interest in taking the job seriously; that he might come to feel the weight of the office and discover some reverence for the democracy that had been placed in his care. But he never did. For close to four years now, he’s shown no interest in putting in the work; no interest in finding common ground; no interest in using the awesome power of his office to help anyone but himself and his friends; no interest in treating the presidency as anything but one more reality show that he can use to get the attention he craves. Donald Trump hasn’t grown into the job because he can’t. And the consequences of that failure are severe: 170,000 Americans dead. Millions of jobs gone while those at the top take in more than ever.”

As another presidential aspirant put it, “America is a democracy, not an autocracy or dictatorship. A hostile Congress for six of Obama’s eight years as president did whatever it could to stymie his policies and programs.  However, in spite of the race haters and obstructionists, particularly Republican legislators and right-wing extremists, by the end of his second term, President Obama left America and the world far better off than when he came into office.”

“Trump’s amateurish and uncaring mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic, while seeking always to blame others for his tragic failures, has resulted in more than 170,000 American deaths and a wrecked American and global economy. Trump’s chaotic handling of the pandemic made America the global leader in coronavirus cases – in excess of five million, at the time of this commentary. The US economy is devastated, with millions of Americans losing their jobs, hundreds of thousands of businesses suffering significant economic losses, and tens of thousands of businesses permanently shuttered.”

Read Deuteronomy. As Hillary Clinton pleaded, “Don’t make 2020 another woulda coulda shoulda election.”

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