The Anti-Democratic Quest to Save Democracy From Trump

Let’s consider a counterfactual. In the autumn of 2016, with American liberalism reeling from the election of Donald Trump, a shattered Hillary Clinton embraces the effort to pin all the blame on Vladimir Putin.

She barnstorms the country arguing that the election was fundamentally illegitimate because of foreign interference. She endorses every attempt to prove that Russian disinformation warped the result. She touts conspiracy theories that supposedly prove that voting machines in Wisconsin were successfully hacked. She argues that her opponent should not be allowed to take office, that he’s a possible Manchurian candidate, a Russian cat’s paw. And she urges Democrats in Congress and Vice President Joe Biden to refuse to certify the election — suggesting that it could somehow be rerun or even that patriotic legislators could use their constitutional authority to make her, the popular-vote winner, president instead.

Her crusade summons up a mass movement — youthful, multiracial and left wing. On Jan. 6, 2017, a crowd descends on the National Mall to demand that “Trump the traitor” be denied the White House. Clinton stirs them up with an angry speech, and protesters attack and overwhelm the Capitol Police and surge into the Capitol, where one is shot by a police officer and the rest mill around for a while and finally disperse.

The election is still certified, and Trump becomes president two weeks later. But he is ineffective and unpopular, and it looks as though Clinton, who is still denying his legitimacy, will be the Democratic nominee again. At which point right-wing legal advocacy groups announce an effort to have her removed from primary ballots, following the guidance of originalist scholars who argue that under the 14th Amendment, she has betrayed her senatorial oath by fomenting insurrection and is ineligible to hold political office.

Is she?

No doubt some readers, firm in the consistency required by the current effort to remove Trump from the 2024 presidential ballot, will bite the bullet and say that in this hypothetical scenario, yes, she is. Others will pick apart my attempted parallel — insisting, say, that it makes all the difference that Russia’s interference efforts were real, whereas the voter fraud claimed by Trump was not, or arguing that Trump’s conspiracy was more comprehensive than what I’ve just described.

My view is that you can construct the analogy any way you like: Had Clinton explicitly tried to induce Congress to overturn the result of the 2016 race and had a left-wing protest on her behalf turned into a certification-disrupting riot, almost none of the people currently insisting that we need to take the challenge to Trump’s ballot access very seriously would be saying the same about a challenge to her eligibility. Instead, they would be accusing that challenge of being incipiently authoritarian, a right-wing attack on our sacred democracy.

And they would have a point. Removing an opposition candidate from the ballot, indeed, a candidate currently leading in some polling averages (pending the economic boom of 2024 that we can all hope is coming), through the exercise of judicial power is a remarkably antidemocratic act. It is more antidemocratic than impeachment, because the impeachers and convicters, representatives and senators, are themselves democratically elected and subject to swift democratic punishment. It is more antidemocratic than putting an opposition politician on trial, because the voters who regard that trial as illegitimate are still allowed to vote for an indicted or convicted politician, as almost a million Americans did for Eugene V. Debs while he languished in prison in 1920.

Sometimes the rules of a republic require doing antidemocratic things. But if the rule you claim to be invoking treats Jan. 6 as the same kind of event as the secession of the Confederacy, consider the possibility that you have taken the tropes of anti-Trump punditry too literally.

The term “insurrection,” New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait wrote on Wednesday, is “a defensible shorthand for Jan. 6.” But it’s not “the most precise” term, because while “Trump attempted to secure an unelected second term in office,” he “was not trying to seize and hold the Capitol nor declare a breakaway republic.”

This concession prompted howls of online derision from his left-wing critics, but Chait is obviously, crashingly correct. There are arguments about precedent and implementation that tell against the case for Trump’s ineligibility and prudential arguments about the wisdom of suppressing populist fervor by judicial fiat. But the most important point is that there are many things a politician can do to subvert a democratic outcome, all of them impeachable and some of them potentially illegal, that are simply not equivalent to military rebellion, even if a bunch of protesters and rioters get involved.

To insist otherwise, in the supposed service of the Constitution, is to demonstrate yet again that too many would-be saviors of our Republic would cut a great road through reason and good sense if they could only be assured of finally getting rid of Donald Trump.

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