Swift on the Separation of Powers

Laputa, Swift’s floating island


As Donald Trump seeks to neuter Congress while at the same time welcoming autocrats to the White House, we find ourselves praying that Democrats, NeverTrumpers, and others who love our Constitution can successfully push back. It’s a battle we see dramatized in Gulliver’s account of the flying island.

The executive power in this instance is Laputa’s king. If he sees anything he doesn’t like, he can literally crush the opposition. Note the use of the world “mildest,” language reminiscent of “Modest Proposal”:

If any town should engage in rebellion or mutiny, fall into violent factions, or refuse to pay the usual tribute, the king has two methods of reducing them to obedience.  The first and the mildest course is, by keeping the island hovering over such a town, and the lands about it, whereby he can deprive them of the benefit of the sun and the rain, and consequently afflict the inhabitants with dearth and diseases: and if the crime deserve it, they are at the same time pelted from above with great stones, against which they have no defence but by creeping into cellars or caves, while the roofs of their houses are beaten to pieces.  But if they still continue obstinate, or offer to raise insurrections, he proceeds to the last remedy, by letting the island drop directly upon their heads, which makes a universal destruction both of houses and men. 

Although Gulliver believes that the king’s advisors would not encourage such an action due to its odiousness, he admits that cruelty only becomes a factor when there self-interest is also involved:

However, this is an extremity to which the prince is seldom driven, neither indeed is he willing to put it in execution; nor dare his ministers advise him to an action, which, as it would render them odious to the people, so it would be a great damage to their own estates, which all lie below; for the island is the king’s demesne.

As we have seen with Trump’s immigrant policy, however, odiousness does not deter him, and we have most recently learned that Trump advisor Stephen Miller advocated blitz arrests of thousands of immigrant parents and children. Nor do GOP Congressmen appear to be much concerned about the needs of the states they represent as they let their Trumpist base push them to extreme measures.

More effective than self-checks, Swift contends, is active resistance:

But there is still indeed a more weighty reason, why the kings of this country have been always averse from executing so terrible an action, unless upon the utmost necessity.  For, if the town intended to be destroyed should have in it any tall rocks, as it generally falls out in the larger cities, a situation probably chosen at first with a view to prevent such a catastrophe; or if it abound in high spires, or pillars of stone, a sudden fall might endanger the bottom or under surface of the island, which, although it consist, as I have said, of one entire adamant, two hundred yards thick, might happen to crack by too great a shock, or burst by approaching too near the fires from the houses below, as the backs, both of iron and stone, will often do in our chimneys.

What results, therefore, is a balance of power. Those below know enough not to push their “obstinacy” too far while the king, in turn, knows that he must hold back. This is how the separation of powers is supposed to work:

[The people] understand how far to carry their obstinacy, where their liberty or property is concerned.  And the king, when he is highest provoked, and most determined to press a city to rubbish, orders the island to descend with great gentleness, out of a pretense of tenderness to his people, but, indeed, for fear of breaking the adamantine bottom; in which case, it is the opinion of all their philosophers, that the loadstone could no longer hold it up, and the whole mass would fall to the ground.

The Founding Fathers set up America with just this push and pull in mind, and (with the exception of the Civil War) it has worked fairly well so far. My fear is that Trump disbelieves those philosophers who point out the hazards and will attempt to land on his foes regardless of dangers to the country’s adamantine bottom.

Any damage sustained, as he sees it, is someone else’s problem.

Further thought: The final Game of Thrones episodes have taken up this drama. Fans such as Elizabeth Warren have been hoping that Dany will use her dragons for benign purposes, but it appears increasingly likely that, unchecked, she is as ruthless as any other despot.

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