Last year’s viral internet debate over “The Dress” meme revealed peculiar limits to our perceptions. We argued ourselves silly about the dress’s “real” color, but no one’s mind was changed. We saw what we saw, and we found it bewildering that anyone could see differently.
Unfortunately, political discourse in the United States – if one dignifies it so – has come to resemble “The Dress” debate. Our ideological polarization, coupled with our tendency to validate our beliefs with our favored news sources, make it difficult for many of us to see how intelligent, moral, and sane people could possibly hold policy positions opposing our own.
This is a regrettable development for our republic. Free and reasonable persons disagree about policy; disagreement about policy is the norm in all democracies. The policy problems we face are thorny, and few effective policy prescriptions are pain-free. It should come as no surprise, then, that we disagree about our choice of medicines. Most of Trump’s and Clinton’s policy proposals – at least those few that have been fully articulated in writing – fall roughly within the mainstream of conservatism and liberalism, respectively. Neither candidate’s policy agenda, understood in this artificial fashion, is a full on threat to our constitutional order.
However, polarization also prompts us to defend our own team (team Democrat or team Republican) at any cost. And in 2016, this tendency goes well beyond unfortunate; it may well prove catastrophic.
Enter Donald Trump.
But wait. If Donald Trump’s fleshed out policy prescriptions do not pose a threat to our constitutional order, then what does?
In short, The Donald himself.
Donald Trump is arguably the worst major party candidate in a hundred years, and possibly since Aaron Burr. He has proven himself erratic, reckless, and blithely mean-spirited toward huge numbers of his fellow citizens. His puts our allies on edge and admires the heavy handed tactics of our rivals. Almost daily his breezy and ignorant utterances reveal a man profoundly untethered from truth and altogether uncurious about the world. In short, a Trump presidency poses a serious risk to our precious time-honored constitutional order.
True, Hillary Clinton is a flawed candidate who carries considerable troubling political baggage. But in Donald Trump, we are not discussing standard run of the mill cronyism. Trump is precisely the kind of candidate the Framers were most devoted to prevent from securing office – a divisive demagogue. Little did we know when Trump descended an escalator to kick off his campaign he was providing us with a fitting visual metaphor for his political tendency to go low, to flatter our most shameful inner demons.
The Framers were war-hardened seasoned politicians who suffered no delusions about the real character of our human nature, and accordingly they built a Constitution designed to endure the rough and tumble of real-life politics. The Constitution produces a government capable of remaining intact from the rulership of the crooked or misguided leader. Such unsavory rulers are inevitable – after all, “enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.”
But they also understood that no degree of clever constitutional engineering can mechanically ensure a decent rights-respecting republican government under every imaginable circumstance. Republican government was, and remains, an experiment – and Donald Trump is a trial too far.
Trump’s presidency threatens to conjure a perfect constitutional storm brewed from Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric and overall recklessness, our separation of powers system, and a polarized party system.
Trump’s incapacity to exercise self-restraint in speech poses problems beyond stirring up controversy and hurting feelings. Trump fails to appreciate, or even recognize, that what a President says by its mere utterance can become, or be perceived as, policy. If a president casually notes at a press conference that he is pardoning a person, then those persons have just won a claim to have been pardoned. The saying is the doing.
Presidential utterances are especially crucial in establishing our international posture. If a President declares that the United States is at war with a country, then leaders around the world will understand that the United States is in fact at war with that country. When a President says he recognizes the instigators of a military coup as the legitimate government, then – voila – that is our policy. If the President claims that our defense of allies is conditional, then leaders of the world, ally and rival alike, will take note and act accordingly.
A President careless with his words is a President careless about matters of life and death. Trump supporters know this if but implicitly. They raged at Secretary of State Clinton’s initial hesitation to characterize the Benghazi attack as an act of terror. Soft words means a soft policy toward terrorism, they decried. What Trump supporters hypocritically fail to acknowledge, however, is that in comparison to their candidate Hillary Clinton is the very picture of measured and thoughtful speech.
Trump’s apologists hold out that the Donald Trump we see blunder weekly, if not daily, is not the Donald Trump who would be President. Trump himself has said as much, stating that he “can be more presidential than anybody. More presidential than anybody other than the great Abe Lincoln.” To borrow from Mr. Trump’s own rhetorical playbook:
Trump is a seventy-year old man. His character (or temperament, to use the language of the age) is set – it would not change were he elected President. Tellingly, Newt Gingrich – one of Trump’s most prominent and active allies – chalked up Trump’s disconcerting war of words with a former Miss Universe as Trump in “I got to be me” mode. Newt is right. What Trump was doing is what Trump does. He’s done it before. Rosie O’Donnell. Megyn Kelly. Khizr Khan. Trump is a man who cannot move forward once an opponent – i.e. anyone who opposes him – gets under his translucently thin skin. He is who he is.
Presidents are deluged with endless demands to solve the problems of a troubled world. As a matter of course, presidents set aside terribly important and urgent concerns to address even more important and even more urgent matters. A man whose personal obsessions impede his ability to prioritize between the important and the trivial cannot be Commander-in-Chief.
His brazen disregard for factual consistency will continue as President. His irresponsible rhetoric dismissing our national obligations, foreign and domestic, will continue as President. His mockery of vulnerable people will continue as president. His “trust my secret plan” mode of leadership will continue as President. There is good reason why unprecedented numbers of Republican Party elders – former Presidents, current Senators and House members – have refused to endorse Trump. They are not being bad Republicans. They are being good Americans.
A curious but now-familiar narrative holds that Donald Trump never really intended to win the nomination or the general election, and therefore his odd behavior is a way of ensuring his loss. Other folks have suggested that Trump is clinically unbalanced psychologically. These theses are almost surely false. But the very fact that they are discussed openly by reasonable persons in mainstream media (from the Washington Post to The National Review) reveals just how abnormal Donald Trump’s behavior is and how desperate people are to account for it.
The reality is simpler, and more disturbing. Donald Trump rules over a Trump-themed Trump-centric empire in which getting what he wants is the norm and expectation. Trump does the firing in this world. Donald acts like a man entitled to say whatever passes through his mind without repercussion. And when he changes his mind ten minutes later, he is entitled not to be reminded of his past utterance. (Clinton’s so-called “Avalanche of Insults” campaign is largely a litany of actual Trump statements.) And if he doesn’t hear or get what he wants, he whines and acts hurt (because he is hurt) and threatens to bring the building down around him.
For good and for bad – but mostly for good – getting what one wants is not how governance works in our constitutional system. Ours is a tedious process. It is a frustrating process. It requires patience and compromise. This frustratingly labyrinthine system doesn’t collapse from its own complexity only when there is significant buy-in to its legitimacy from elites and ordinary citizens alike. It works only when the operators of this oft-unbecoming system suffer through its indignities by respecting the rules of the game, written and unwritten. Our system requires a loyal opposition because everyone in our system loses, and they lose a lot.
Trump has demonstrated no such inclination to respect the spirit of the rules when they do not suit his needs. He does what he wishes and brags about it. There is an irony to Trump’s disregard for rules – that is, to boundaries. Trump’s rhetoric is at its most persuasive when it reminds us that our borders matter and that security is crucial. He’s right. Borders do matter and security is crucial. But Trump is blind to the fact that in our system, the most important boundary – and the highest source of our security – is the Constitution.
The U.S. Constitution was designed to reduce the dangers of passion, selfishness, and narrow-mindedness, and to amplify what James Madison called “the mild voice of reason.” It was a noble experiment, and it has served us well. But the Constitution is not magic. The Constitution was insufficient to keep the country from splitting in two in the 1860s. It works because people are committed to following it in letter and, more importantly, in spirit.
Harry S. Truman famously said of his successor, General Eisenhower: “He’ll sit here, and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike – it won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating.” But one thing Truman knew about Eisenhower: he respected due process. Eisenhower passionately disagreed with Brown v. Board of Education, but he set aside his personal feelings to send American troops to Little Rock, Arkansas to enforce it. Truman knew that Ike would be frustrated because he also knew that Ike was neither demagogue nor maverick.
Trump, in contrast, suggests time and again that poor leadership is stymieing the system. He plans on moving briskly. Thus crime will “end” and “soon,” once he takes office. More incredibly, all of our dreams will come true once he is elected. These over-the-top promises more or less require that Trump push the limits of constitutional governance. Trump has no regard for protocol or, what he and his supporters might call, “politics as usual.” His famous lack of patience or focus means he will feel the need to act and to act immediately.
Haste is a particular hazard of the executive branch. An unhinged or overly ambitious legislator can do little damage without the concurrence of many fellow Senators and Members of the House. More importantly, the Constitution spells out the lawmaking procedure. One doesn’t pass laws by going rogue.
The constitutional language of Article II, which deals with Presidential power, is comparatively terse. The president shall grant pardons. He shall nominate. He shall receive ambassadors (i.e. recognize nations). He shall commission officers. How these powers are fulfilled are not spelled out in the Constitution. Elaborate protocols have developed over time to assist Presidents in their decision-making in issuing these decrees, but these protocols are essentially self-imposed. If a President ignores them, there is no obvious constitutional recourse. The Constitution grants authority to the president, not to the protocol. The only protection against presidential abuse, finally, would have to come from an aggressively protective Court or Congress.
So can the Courts save us from a runaway Trump presidency? Paradoxically it would depend a lot on Trump himself. The Court’s most important check is its moral authority. It has no power of enforcement; that comes from the president – hence, the rub. Noncompliance is not unprecedented. In 1954 the Court’s decision in Brown vs. Board of Education declared segregation in schools to be unconstitutional, but until Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, fewer than 2 percent of African-American children in the South attended an integrated school. The attitude of the South was basically, “make us,” and it took an act of Congress and assertive President to overcome the challenge. If Trump adopts a similar path of noncompliance, the Court has little recourse.
Which leaves us with Congress as our guardian. On legislative issues, the Congress can serve as an important check. Paul Ryan and friends will have their own agendas and they will work to persuade Trump to embrace their vision. But in matters of executive action, Trump may well stand unimpeded. Republican leaders voice frustration at being unable to stop President Obama’s alleged executive overreach! The congressional oversight function, with its big stick of impeachment, means nothing if Congress abdicates its role as watchdog. And such abdications are more routine than recognized. It is opposition parties that initiate impeachment. Proof: There has never been a full House vote for impeachment, or even a vote at the committee level – to repeat, ZERO times – when the President’s own party was the House majorityi. We think of impeachment in constitutional terms, but in practice it is never removed from partisan concerns. In today’s era of polarized parties we cannot realistically expect a Republican majority to serve as a sufficient check for a Trump presidency, though it certainly would for a Clinton presidency.
Former Republican office holders oppose Trump in hordes. But it’s nigh impossible for Republicans in office due to the partisan arm-twisting. Senator Ted Cruz begged us to vote our conscience, but under pressure from fellow Republicans he has finally caved. And Trump is not even President yet.
In short, the Courts are unable to protect us from Trump, and Congress will be unwilling to do so. It is up to us, the people to prevent a Trump presidency from ever becoming a reality. Let us hope that Trump’s descent down the escalator does not foreshadow a future descent into majority tyranny. But a people indifferent to responsible democratic rule cannot be saved from themselves. A people who fall spell to a popular demagogic ruler invite a terrible risk.
Risk is not certainty. I suspect that the risk of an all-out constitutional threat under a Trump presidency is small. But even a numerically small risk can be a risk too great if the stakes are high enough. Imagine a bowl of Skittles in which just a few poisoned candies are sprinkled in that would kill us. Would you go ahead and grab a handful? If not, then you cannot in good conscience vote for Trump.
i William B. Perkins, “ The Political Nature of Presidential Impeachment in the United States” in Baumgartner, Jody C. and Naokao Kada, Checking Executive Power: Presidential Impeachment in Comparative Perspective (London: Praeger, p. 33)