Trump and the Constitution
When checks and balances aren't enough.
I really don’t know how to deal with the constant normalizing of Trump. He constantly lies, says awful stuff, and breaks the law, but if it gets covered, it looks like he is being attacked and just further cements his support from his followers, and the large group of people who don’t really follow politics closely start to believe the claims he is just being attacked.
As political scientists do you two have any idea what is built into our Constitution or our institutions that can stop this? I don’t think anything exists. If someone is able to build a large enough following, it looks like they can behave well outside of existing norms and still rise to and retain power. Indeed, I think the Constitution and most of our institutions are sort of designed with he idea that those in power or wanting to power will largely act within norms.
That’s precisely right.
Recall that the Framer’s vision had both the President and Senate indirectly elected. The former was chosen via the Electoral College, with the electors chosen by the legislatures of the several states (which were themselves directly elected, albeit with only a small subset of the population entitled to vote). The latter, likewise, were chosen by state legislatures.
It was simply assumed that the electors would choose highly regarded elites like George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson to wield the powers of the Presidency. And that the state legislatures would chose able men to safeguard the interests of their respective states.
As Will correctly notes in an otherwise awful column,
In Federalist 51, James Madison predicted that liberty would be protected because the separation of powers would give “to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachment of the others.” Unfortunately, Madison’s expectation that one branch’s ambition would “counteract” the other presumed that, for example, the Senate’s pride would make it jealous of its prerogatives in providing advice and consent — or withholding consent — concerning people nominated by presidents to executive branch positions.
The Constitution’s Madisonian architecture — the federal government’s constitutional equilibrium — has been jeopardized by political tribalism. By party loyalty that breeds subservience to the president, and disloyalty to the Senate as an institution.
As we’ve written oh so many times over the years, the combination of popular election of the President while keeping the mechanism of the Electoral College in place creates a truly distorted system. That’s especially true when there are only two viable political parties whose nominees are chosen by the most activist parts of their party constituency.
Further, while I’m not on the “repeal the 17th Amendment” bandwagon championed by many conservatives, the combination of the direct election of Senators with a two-party system—again, exacerbated by primaries as the mechanism for choosing nominees—has upended the notion that Senators would be primarily loyal to their institution or, indeed, to their states or constituents.
As Steven Taylor has elucidated here extensively, the combination of all these things means that impeachment is essentially a dead letter. The House has only impeached a President four times in the history of the country and three of those has come during the hyper-partisan era that roughly started with Bill Clinton’s election in 1992. Clinton was impeached once and Donald Trump twice, all essentially on party-line votes. But, crucially, that same hyper-partisanship all but assured that they would be acquitted in the Senate* because it would be political suicide for a member of their own party to vote to remove them from office.
Indeed, neither Andrew Johnson, the first President impeached, nor Clinton got a single vote convicting them from a member of their own party. A tiny number of Senate Republicans voted to oust Trump but, not only were his offenses (especially in the second instance) much more egregious but, frankly, the votes were largely performative. Those Republicans voting to convict were either retiring from politics or in states relatively hostile to Trump and, crucially, knew that their votes would not come even close to putting Trump over the removal threshold.
tl;dr version: The best way to check abuses of power from the likes of Trump is to not elect the likes of Trump President. Which, indeed, was the reason for the rise of the #NeverTrump Republicans. Alas, many of those who correctly foresaw what Trump would become ultimately devolved into Trump lackeys once he was elected.
*This isn’t to say that the case for removal was equally strong in all three cases. But guilt and innocence, or even the relative seriousness of the alleged transgression, are not the main deciding factors in Senate voting.