One important but overlooked aspect of President Trump’s waging of total war against impeachment is that in so doing, Trump claims to represent the will of the American people — and attacks the House as engaged in an illegitimate effort to overturn that will — even as Trump was not elected by a popular majority.

In a new column, Jamelle Bouie of the New York Times identifies and expands on this tension. Which gives me a hook to play with a concept you might call “minoritarian populism," or “counter-majoritarian populism.”

Trump regularly describes the impeachment inquiry as a “coup,” and the White House Counsel’s Office has adopted the official legal stance that it’s “illegitimate.” This is supposed to justify the maximal abuse of presidential prerogative and the blanket defiance of lawful subpoenas to shut down that inquiry.

More than a dozen Fox News hosts and guests have called the impeachment inquiry an attempted “coup” since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced it on Sept. 24. (JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

Trump and Republicans — along with Trump’s media propagandists — have fused this attack on the legitimacy of impeachment and oversight with attacks on the “deep state.” The argument is that the impeachment inquiry, and revelations coming from the whistleblower and other alarmed career public servants, together amount to a concerted effort to overturn the last election.

Bouie debunks this narrative by pointing out that impeachment is part of the constitutional order and doesn’t actually nullify elections. And he also challenges the idea that Trump represents the people’s will, noting that he is the legitimate president under our system but not one who represents the will of the majority (as Trump implicitly claims).

Trump’s claim that he represents the people, Bouie notes, draws on a certain type of “right-wing populist logic.” The “people” are constituted only by his supporters, and the elected political opposition and government professionals who harbor reservations or deep and sincere panic about Trump can be dismissed as part of a corrupt elite that is trying to defy that popular will:

He casts himself as a representative of “the people,” narrowly defined as his supporters, who are themselves — in a sort of circular logic — the essence of the nation. In the Trumpist vision, the 2016 election stands apart from all others. It’s no longer a grant of constitutionally-bounded authority. It becomes a kind of coronation, in which Trump is sanctified as the embodiment of a “real America,” the actual size of which is irrelevant.
Under this logic, the pro-Trump case against impeachment is straightforward. Democrats, hostile Republicans (“human scum”) and dissenting bureaucrats are illegitimized by the fact of their opposition, whenever it started and whatever the reason. That opposition, in turn, is a repudiation of “the people” of Trump’s imagination, which is how the use of a legitimate, constitutional process becomes an attempt to “overturn” their will.

A few points. First, there is a legitimate debate to be had over how far government insiders and intelligence operatives should go in challenging the president, since he’s elected and they are not.

But in the present context, this debate has mostly been settled already — against Trump. The whole legal scaffolding of whistleblower protections that arose in legislative stages after Watergate reflects the recognition that you want government insiders to be able to sound the alarm about wrongdoing without fear of retaliation from agency heads who serve at the executive’s pleasure. You want this to protect the people.

The rigorous process by which this latest whistleblower had his claims vetted for credibility — and transmitted to Congress — reflects such innovations in good governing. True, it does create complications when the wrongdoer is the president. But the bottom line is that when Trump attacks this as a sham process — as an effort to flout some fictitious people’s will — he’s actually trying to undermine the very sort of protections that evolved to deal with precisely the sort of corruption Trump is engaged in. These processes were created and built upon by democratically elected Congresses and previous presidents.

And, of course, the current Democratic House majority was also elected (in the largest midterm national popular vote win since, ironically enough, Watergate). The chambers set their own rules under the Constitution, so the Democratic impeachment process that Trump attacks for flouting his people’s will actually does reflect the will of that 2018 popular majority in the sense that it’s being implemented by their elected representatives.

What makes all of this so galling is not just that Trump lost the 2016 popular vote, but also that he constantly embraces the most virulently anti-democratic tactics and rhetoric, and even openly declares that electoral outcomes are not legitimate if he doesn’t win.

Populism is sometimes said to be in tension with liberalism’s commitments to limited government and technocratic expertise, in that institutional constraints on popular government and the bureaucracy of experts do sometimes thwart majoritarianism. This creates genuine and thorny problems best left to the political theory eggheads.

But in this case, what Trump represents isn’t even majoritarianism.

Trump’s “populism” — which holds that the only “people” who count are his own, and which can be invoked as a weapon against opposition leaders and legitimate processes ensuring accountability in government alike — has in a sense fused with a much longer-running Republican addiction to counter-majoritarian tactics. (It’s interesting that Trumpist populism and GOP minority-rule tactics both constitute a response to perceived slow-rolling demographic emergencies, but in somewhat different ways.) Those tactics include extreme partisan gerrymandering, voter suppression and census-gaming (the latter two of which Trump has endorsed with gusto) and norm-shredding such as the holding up of a Supreme Court seat (which Trump got to fill).

Of course, in the minoritarian populist worldview, if the opposition is illegitimate, then any and all tactics employed against it can be reverse-justified as a reassertion of that fictitious “people’s will” arrayed behind the populist leader, even if that opposition actually does in some sense represent a majority.

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