George Washington Warned About “the Party Spirit” and Foreign Influence

Given the fact that a sizable number of citizens can’t identify what is wrong with Donald Trump’s appeal to foreign governments for election interference and the accompanying impotence of Republican office holders to condemn it, I want to rehearse George Washington’s words about party affiliation and foreign influence. Here is Washington from his farewell address (1796):

I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the State, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally.

This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.

Washington foresaw our own time with his words here. Trump certainly cares about “his own elevation.” The extreme partisanship of the GOP is about party not country. Slowly but surely, Trump has transformed the GOP away from its principles into a group of people afraid to offer dissent.

Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight), the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.

It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.

Trump has opened the door, now publicly and widely, to foreign influence and access to the Trump administration. In the case of Ukraine, President Zelenskyy angled for a meeting by pledging an investigation of Joe Biden and his son, even though there is no evidence of need for such an action.

The U.S. policy toward Russia has shifted dramatically under Trump and we still don’t know why. Washington warned about the very situation we find ourselves in. Where are all of the Christian nation, what-would-the-founders-do Republicans? They remain silent unable to come up with a good pithy Founders’ quote to support a president-monarch who farms out influence for personal gain.

There is an opinion that parties in free countries are useful checks upon the administration of the government and serve to keep alive the spirit of liberty. This within certain limits is probably true; and in governments of a monarchical cast, patriotism may look with indulgence, if not with favor, upon the spirit of party. But in those of the popular character, in governments purely elective, it is a spirit not to be encouraged. From their natural tendency, it is certain there will always be enough of that spirit for every salutary purpose. And there being constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be by force of public opinion, to mitigate and assuage it. A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume.

Republican office holders who fancy themselves patriots after the spirit of the founders need a reality check. Donald Trump is not governing in the spirit of Washington, Madison, and Jefferson. This is the time to ask ourselves, with Franklin, if we are going to keep this Republic