Speculation about how long Donald Trump will last as president has been rampant since the spring. By summer it was quite clear that: a) Trump was not going to grow up in office; and b) the best staffing in the world would not be able to make him even a mediocre president. Yes, constitutional checks and balances are still working, but that is cold comfort when so many officials and analysts are talking so casually about war with North Korea.
The past week seemed to spark anew frenzied cries that the president is seriously unwell and therefore something must be done. The president’s reported conviction that it wasn’t him on the Access Hollywood tape bordered on the delusional. The plea deal with Michael Flynn reminded everyone of the legal threats that have been tapping, as of Robert Mueller gently rapping, rapping at Trump’s chamber door. The Senate passed a garbage tax bill, even as the president’s Gallup poll numbers plummeted. The White House’s orchestrated leaks about Rex Tillerson’s departure, clearly designed to shame him into stepping down, seemed redundant. At this point, nothing can shame Tillerson more than the job he has done as secretary of state.
So it is no surprise that some hope the Mueller investigation will bring Trump down, or that the president will eat himself into a coronary. It is certainly possible that these things will happen. As someone who has vehemently opposed Trump for years, however, I hope they do not.
To be clear, it is not that I believe the Mueller investigation to be a fruitless endeavor. In a little over six months, the special counsel has managed to indict Trump’s former campaign manager and reach a plea deal with Trump’s first national security adviser. The more malfeasance Mueller and his team exposes, the better. He has done a far better job of draining the swamp than the president of the United States.
Still, if Trump is forced out by constitutional-but-unprecedented means, I fear the repercussions. Consider the 25th Amendment. As Ezra Klein observes — in a Vox article making the case for impeachment, no less — removing Trump this way would lead to all kinds of blowback:
Imagine that Vice President Mike Pence and the Cabinet did compel Trump to undergo psychiatric evaluation. And imagine the psychiatrist did return a diagnosis of some kind, be it early-stage dementia or narcissistic personality disorder (plenty of psychiatrists stand ready to diagnose Trump with all manner of mental ailments, so this is not far-fetched). The vote is taken, and Trump is removed from office.
To many of Trump’s supporters — and perhaps many of his opponents — this would look like nothing less than a coup; the swamp swallowing the man who sought to drain it. Imagine the Breitbart headlines, the Fox News chyrons. And would they truly be wrong?
Of course, this also undercuts Klein’s argument for a lower threshold for impeachment. If Trump was removed from office that way, the political blowback would probably be the same. Regardless, in contrast to the 25th Amendment, impeaching and removing Trump from office remains a true hypothetical. In this polarized age, the only way Trump would be removed from office is if Democrats win 67 seats in the Senate. That is not going to happen anytime soon.
For Trump to lose properly, it has to be at the ballot box. Trump has to run for reelection and be repudiated by American voters. He has to lose the popular vote again, get trounced in the electoral college, and see his party pay the consequences of backing the most ignorant, illiberal president in modern American history.
Jacob T. Levy knows a lot about constitutional democracy, and over at the Niskanen Center’s blog he makes a powerful case of the need for a political over a legal solution to Trump’s failures as a leader:
Law aims at certainty, the definitive and correct protection of those who hold rights against those who would violate or undermine them. Politics offers no such certainties. Even at its best it is a domain of contestable judgments that never stop being contested. There is no final settlement; there is always another election. Liberals worry about majoritarianism, and think law can, as politics cannot, protect individuals and minorities from it. We imagine that constitutional settlements can tame politics, confining it within the boundaries of law, ensuring that it complies with justice and respects rights. But they can’t. …
The current administration shows why the defense of freedom and of the liberal society can’t be an exclusively legal concern. Rules can be manipulated and danced around by the powerful. Legal proceedings are much slower than changes in political circumstances. And executive power is in its nature somewhat lawless. John Locke described executive prerogative as necessary in any system that separated the executive and legislative powers, and defined it as the “power to act according to discretion, for the public good, without the prescription of the law, and sometimes even against it.”…
If the independent executive cannot be successfully bound by law, then there is nothing else for it but politics. I’ve argued several times in this space that we need to understand the defense of the liberal society as a political project, one that is dependent on political resources from motivations for popular mobilization to organizational capacity to institutional counterbalances. (See also Michelle Schwarze’s fine essay.) The liberal order of free and open commerce, of religious liberty and freedom of speech and the press, and of rule-of-law constraints on state arbitrariness and violence requires strong political foundations; while law is a crucial part of that order, it can’t pull itself up by its own bootstraps. The liberal society needs an electorate, and elected officials, who are willing and able to stand up for it.
The absolute best way for Trump and Trumpism to be repudiated is through democratic and not merely legal means. If Doug Jones defeats Roy Moore in Alabama despite a presidential endorsement, that represents a blow to Trump in the same way he was humiliated by the Virginia state elections last month. If the GOP loses badly in the midterms despite a healthy economy, that is an even bigger repudiation of the head of the Republican Party. And if Trump loses bigly in his quest for reelection in 2020, such a resounding defeat might shock the GOP into repudiating white identity politics.
Electing Trump once was a fluke involving a fractured GOP, an unpopular Democrat nominee, and the Democrats having won the previous two terms. Electing Trump twice would be national suicide. If the United States has any chance at regaining its bearings as the greatest constitutional democracy in the world, the populist in chief must be revealed as genuinely unpopular. And it has to happen at the ballot box.