Monday, January 30, 2017

The Normal Politics of Abnormal Presidents

Mark Graber

Donald Trump is an abnormal president.  Mr. Trump lacks any traditional criterion for the presidency other than being elected by the rules prescribed by Article II.  He is a sexual predator, a serial liar, proudly ignorant, a bully and a bigot, who surrounds himself with the worst characters of American constitutional politics.  Unlike any other president in American history, Mr. Trump has no particular commitment to the institutions of constitutional democracy, broadly defined.  If Ben Carson was arguably a dimension worse than any other aspirant for the presidency in 2016, Mr. Trump is dimensionally worse than Mr. Carson.  Claims that some other president or presidential aspirant are as unqualified or as bad, while perhaps true regarding an individual characteristic (Trump may be no dumber than Warren Harding), are ludicrous in the totality.  Whatever his psychological condition, Mr. Trump is constitutionally unfit for the White House or any other position in a constitutional democracy.

The Trump presidency is nevertheless the consequence of normal constitutional politics.  Trump was elected according the constitutional rules.  His candidacy was a product of changes in campaign-finance that have increasingly facilitated self-financed candidates with limited political histories as well as celebrities such as Ross Perot and Sarah Palin.  The 2016 vote largely mirrored  the 2008 and 2012 vote with differences being as much explained by secular trends in voting choice as particular details of the campaign such as the FBI's intervention.  The only major unique event was the publication of embarrassing documents by Russian hackers, which no doubt played some role in the election.  Still, evidence suggests that false news and information played a far greater role and the inability of many voters to make accurate judgments about basic facts seems a consequence of long-term trends in how Americans obtain and process facts about the political world. 

The normal politics that generated an abnormal president highlight the necessary repairs that must be made to the American constitutional order to prevent Trumpism.  If constitutional order A in the normal course of operation generates constitutional order B and constitutional order B is a terrible regime, constitutional order A has severe design flaws and cannot be restored merely by a temporary expedient that removes a particular manifestation of political outcome B.  Impeaching Trump promises only temporary relief.  If Donald Trump were to disappear today, the combination of campaign finance laws, media practices, party politics and sheer bigotry that produced Donald Trump will likely produce some variation on Donald Trump in the foreseeable future.  That is our new normal.  Trumpism can be prevented only if fundamental changes are made to the constitutional order, whether those changes be, as Sandy Levinson insists, to the constitutional text, or as I believe, to the way that constitutional politics functions.

Alas, the normal politics that generated an abnormal president also highlight why very few governing officials have an incentive to change fundamental features of the constitutional order.  The vast majority of powerholders in the United States are the beneficiaries of this dysfunctional constitutional regime.  Donald Trump is good for media profits, which means Trump or similar are good for a corporate controlled media.  Republicans are unlikely to tinker with a constitutional order in which Republicans control most levers of government.  Republican Senator Shelley Moore of West Virginia spoke for her party when commenting that most Republicans like the direction Mr. Trump is taking the country, even as they wish Mr. Trump would tone down his rhetorical excesses.  Leading Democrats are also unlikely to tinker with a constitutional order which has contributed to their control of the party.  In this constitutional order, after all, Nancy Pelosi gets to be House Minority Leader and Hillary Clinton almost wins the presidency.  Not bad.  In a constitutional order in which Democrats are the majority party, a fair probability exists that different persons play prominent leadership roles in that coalition. 

The challenge that the normal politics of abnormal presidents present is finding the resources in the existing constitutional order for upending that regime with the understanding that the means by which this order is upended will likely become the normal politics of the next era.  A military coup that overthrows Mr. Trump provides the foundation for the military coup that overthrows President Elizabeth Warren.  If the left gains power through riots in the streets and general strikes, then opposition to a leftwing government is likely to take the form of riots in the streets and general strikes.  The best solution and the most challenging one is a campaign aimed at mobilizing voters under the most difficult circumstances for mobilizing voters since the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

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