Like a lot of things in his young administration, Donald Trump’s respect for the Constitution—or even really his knowledge of it—is an open question. When he got together all of the most important people in TV news to yell at them that they needed to cover him differently, did that show a shocking disrespect for the First Amendment, or was it just some kind of feint to influence their coverage? Are his many statements promoting torture and contradicting the Eighth Amendment, deriding the separation of powers, and more, evidence of a deep disrespect for American government, or just bluster?
The Constitution has power because we believe in it, and because the institutions of this country and the people who comprise them act to support it. Republicans now control all three branches of our government. Will they step up, or are we witnessing the end of constitutional government?
In this moment of uncertainty, it’s interesting to look back 800 years to the birth of the idea of reigning in a ruler: the 1215 signing of Magna Carta, the document that’s the basis for all constitutional government everywhere in the world.
As it happens, there a lot of similarities between Donald Trump and King John, the ruler forced to sign Magna Carta. You might remember him as the villain of Disney’s Robin Hood, immortalized as a simpering lion.
Like Trump, John came to power after a contested, controversial process. John’s older brother, Richard I, had died young with no heirs and the law was unclear as to whom the crown should pass. Some supported John, Richard’s brother—a figure of ridicule and a personal failure who had been mocked his entire life—while others supported his nephew, Arthur of Brittany. John was the eventual winner, but the succession left his country bitterly divided.
“If you come to power as a contentious candidate, one of the things that you have to do is to heal the wounds,” said Professor Stephen Church, a British historian and the author of King John And The Road to Magna Carta. “One of the things that John did not do was to heal the wounds.”
On the contrary, John eventually captured his main rival, Arthur, and murdered him, according to the judgment of most historians.
John continued to exhibit a thin skin and thirst for vengeance against his enemies throughout his reign, often going beyond what was acceptable even for a medieval king. He ruled without the support of the political elite, taking advice from a small group of unpopular advisors who encouraged him to engage in unjust acts and unwise wars.
“He just basically goes for people, for political opponents, in ways that are considered illegal,” said said Marc Morris, also a British historian, and the author of King John: Treachery, Tyranny and the Road to Magna Carta. “He persecutes them just because they cross him. He slaps huge fines on them, and tries to ruin them financially, because he doesn’t like them.”
The most famous example of this is William de Braose, a friend of John’s so close that he is rumored to have helped him murder his rival, Arthur of Brittany. After many years as a royal favorite, John turned on Braose for obscure reasons. Official documents cite what was effectively an overdue bill, but John’s actions went far beyond the pale for bill collection, including seizing all of Arthur’s lands and starving his wife and child to death.
“This clearly really, really shocked contemporaries,” said Morris. “The way the king’s untrammeled power could destroy someone seemingly so great.”
Again and again in John’s life, said Morris, you can see him overreacting in an attempt to appear powerful and counter the popular idea of him as a ridiculous, unserious person. “When he’s on the back foot, you can imagine him thinking, they think I’m weak, but I’ll show them I’m strong. It’s sort of the knee-jerk reaction of a weak man.”
John’s temperament didn’t only have consequences at home.
“If you don’t make peace with your internal enemies, what happens is when your external enemies appear on the scene, the people who ought to support you look the other way, or even end up supporting the external enemy,” said Church. “That’s very much what happened to John. The French king throughout the whole of John’s life was his major political and military opponent, and because John failed to build bridges and secure his situation at home by operating with the other stakeholders in the kingdom, what happened when the French king made his final push, John discovered that he had no supporters.”
The silver lining, such that there was one, to John’s reign is that it was so disastrous that a group of the political elite revolted, eventually forcing him to sign the Magna Carta.
“Even if you are the most powerful person in your particular world, if you don’t bring on board all those other powerful people who have a vested interest in the land that you’re ruling, actually what will happen in the end is that they will turn against you,” said Church. “There were enough people within the English kingdom whose rights had been stood on, squashed, and who feared for their own futures, that in the end they, against their natural judgement, rebelled against their ruler in a significant way and in a comprehensive way.”
Magna Carta tried to limit these abuses by establishing certain liberties, many of which would go on to be enshrined in the American Constitution, including prohibitions against illegal imprisonment and the guarantee of access to swift justice.
Essentially, said Morris, the document set out to establish “rules to make sure the king can’t just go after people that annoy him—that some crime has to be committed.”
Some of the outrages of John’s rule are unlikely to reoccur under President Trump. The odds of Jeb Bush’s family being locked in a castle and starved to death appear low, at least for the moment. But others seem very real. Failing to see that a divided country is a weak country seems like a particular blindspot of his, and alienating our allies in NATO could have real consequences if we find ourselves needing NATO, as we did after September 11. Destroying a political rival or personal annoyance with financial penalties—whether through frivolous lawsuit or regulatory action—seems like exactly the kind of thing Trump would do. Generally, will he take his personal vendettas too far, will he be roundly seen as unjust, will his actions shock the country? This is happening already, and he hasn’t even been inaugurated.
More hopefully, will Trump prove to be such a disastrous leader that he sets all of Western civilization on a better path for the future, by forcing the rest of society to band together in opposition? These are dark times, not just here but in the UK, France, and Germany. The forces of opposition could do with some banding together.