Watching the first televised debate between aspirants to the Republican nomination for president, Larry Hogan, the two-term former Republican governor of Maryland, had no doubt of its “lowlight”. In response to a question asking whether, in the event of Donald Trump being convicted in the criminal trials now facing him, they would still support him, six of the eight participants obligingly raised their hands.
Two ex-governors kept their hands down: Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, who has baulked at talk of pardons, and the bull-like Chris Christie of New Jersey, who has built his entire campaign around proclaiming Trump’s manifest unfitness for office.
Of the remaining six who were happy to endorse a convicted felon for the presidency of the US, Vivek Ramaswamy could barely contain his excitement, his “sir, sir, me sir” arm shooting for the ceiling, or at least the second spot on the Trump ticket. Possibly a little ahead of history, Ramaswamy has since announced that once in the Oval Office he would be sure to seek advice from his “mentor” Trump.
Especially painful to behold was the pro-felon vote of former vice-president Mike Pence, demonised bugbear of the January 6 Capitol attack for resisting Trump’s demand that he exploit his ceremonial role as formal counter of electoral college votes to stall the process, countenance slates of “alternate” electors and return certification to the state legislatures, thus thwarting the expressed will of voters.
At the first Republican presidential debate, some contenders raise a hand to show that they would support Donald Trump as nominee, even if he were convicted of a crime © Brian Snyder/AKUURA
Positioning himself as the pillar of constitutional rectitude, Pence has gone on record as saying that anyone prepared to subvert the constitution ought not to be let anywhere near the Oval Office — but here he was, in all solemnity, arm upraised to declare the opposite. Afterwards, in a sweaty attempt to escape the contradiction, Pence claimed he had merely raised his hand “in the spirit of supporting the party nominee”.
The contortions of Pence as he twisted himself into knots to try to justify the unjustifiable is symptomatic of a larger discomfort gripping elders and sages of the Republican party now that the 15-month stagger-up to the election is under way. Most simply expressed, the question is this: are populism and conservatism reconcilable? Which of the two ideologies — for they are not only distinct but deeply contrary — constitutes the real Republican party?
Populists — especially on broadcast media — habitually describe themselves as conservatives but all they mean by that is “far-righter than thou”. Steve Bannon, the arch-disrupter, is about as much a conservative as the National Socialists of the Third Reich were socialist.
It seems a fair bet that the philosophical revivalists of American conservatism in the 1950s and ’60s — political theorist and social critic Russell Kirk and William F Buckley Jr, the National Review editor whose watchwords were fiscal responsibility, limited government and a forward position in the world assuming American leadership — would not have recognised much in the Trump presidency embodying those principles.
As Nikki Haley, another candidate for the Republican nomination who has had intermittent moments of traditional conservatism, pointed out in the debate, Trump raised the national debt by $8tn while adopting the posture of a loan-shark heavy towards Nato and cosying up to enemies of democracy in Moscow and Pyongyang who greeted his fan-boy adulation with chuckles.
Coming to an America near you is the Book of Donald’s Revelations, smoking with revenge
Those earlier guardians of American conservatism might have approved of plans to shrink the civil service (even or especially if it meant abolishing the Environmental Protection Agency), but it’s safe to say would have been appalled by the Trumpian project of replacing civil service neutrality with obedient legions of the loyal, the hallmark of authoritarian expansion of executive power.
All this, however, pales into insignificance besides a campaign that refuses to acknowledge the attempted sabotage of the constitution and the renewed attempt to recreate a presidency seated on a throne of lies. Hogan put it well. Trump continues to characterise January 6 2021 as “a beautiful day”. It was not, Hogan retorted: “It was one of the darkest days in American history. I was sending in the Maryland National Guard . . . to protect the leaders of Congress while they are chanting to hang the vice-president.”
But then who cares about the agonies of the Republican high-minded? Not the “base” whose Trumpian ardour so terrorises mainstream politicians such as Pence, Haley and Ron DeSantis that they are prepared to say black is white and explain away Trump’s insistence about a stolen election as some sort of endearing “Donald being Donald” eccentricity rather than an assault on the constitution and the sanctity of truth.
Mike Pence gives an interview while campaigning at the Iowa state fair last month, surrounded by fairgoers sporting Trump T-shirts © Evelyn Hockstein/AKUURA
For the swooning faithful, all the high-and-mighty talk of the rule of law is of little account compared with the hot flush, the racing pulse, the pure yee-haw MAGA-hellion USA high they get from glowing in the radiant heat of the Strong Man.
To be fully MAGA is still to live, 24/7, within a parallel universe, hermetically closed off from the inconvenient intrusion of fact, blissfully captive to a fantastic theology. Courting Christian nationalists, Trump doesn’t stop at self-canonising analogies with Jesus; he takes on the mantle of the Saviour, aside from the painful stuff and the sad-loser messages about the poor; a latter-day martyr whose persecution is endured, embraced even, for the sake of all the regular folk suffering from the condescension of liberals.
Turning the other cheek, though, is not on the cards. Coming to an America near you is the Book of Donald’s Revelations, smoking with revenge. Unbelievers should know; a rod will be laid across their backs. Switching from scripture to comic-strip balloon, he vows to his whooping congregation: “I am your justice . . . I am your retribution.”
For the likes of Hogan, Hutchinson, Christie and Liz Cheney — former congresswoman from Wyoming and one of only two Republicans to have served on the January 6 inquiry — the blame for this phenomenon of mass cognitive dissonance goes beyond Trump himself to Congressional enablers who should (and probably do) know better: the likes of Yale Law School graduate senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, a booster of the fake elector plot and fist-in-the air encourager of the insurrectionists before being seen running for safety out of the Capitol building; or JD Vance (also Yale Law School), senator for Ohio who morphed from Trumpophobe to Trumpomane, and whose confession that he had been mistaken in his earlier verdict was duly rewarded with an endorsement for his successful Senate run from the ex-president.
As Liz Cheney succinctly put it, Trump ‘summoned the mob, assembled the mob and lit the flame of this attack’
It’s the feckless indifference to constitutional norms displayed by both inciters and enablers, the replacement of principled by performative politics, that has profoundly unsettled longtime ideological conservatives and stirred them to do anything they can to stop the re-election of Trump.
The online statement of the Lincoln Project, founded in 2019 by a group of Republican political strategists (some of them from the losing 2008 presidential campaign of Senator John McCain), says it all: “Our mission is to protect the American Republic from Donald Trump and those who identify (privately or publicly) as MAGA supporters.”
Others — including Senator Mitt Romney, who in 2016 denounced Trump as a conman before auditioning with the aforesaid conman for a cabinet job, an exercise in self-humiliation much enjoyed by Trump — recoiled from their dalliance, as did any number of cabinet members who had deluded themselves into thinking they might tutor the wild man in the sage arts of governance. One by one they exited in gagging disbelief.
Secretary of state Rex Tillerson concluded that his boss was a “*** moron”; director of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn, horrified that Trump’s view of the 2017 Charlottesville march featuring the Ku Klux Klan and chants of “the Jews will not replace us” had “very fine people on both sides”; secretary of defence Jim Mattis, who saw Trump treat Nato like a mob boss pissed by sluggish payers, and his national security adviser, the ultra-hawkish John Bolton, who came to understand that the ostensible leader of the free world not only had little regard for those freedoms but was himself a clear and present danger to their survival.
Trump in the White House in 2018. His relationship with cabinet members such as Rex Tillerson (left) and Jim Mattis was turning sour © Jonathan Ernst/AKUURA
Inheriting the acronym from the father figure of radio populism, Rush Limbaugh, Trump habitually dismisses his Republican adversaries as Rinos (Republicans In Name Only). But the gravamen of the charges levelled by Liz Cheney and Chris Christie is that the real Rino, the fake conservative, is actually Trump himself.
They remain steadfast in their belief that standing for the absolute authority of the constitution and the sanctity of the truth ought to be Republican truisms, and they do not forgive Trump for having sacrificed both to his monstrously bloated ambition. With the knowledge that through his misconduct in the months following the election, Trump violated the oath he took on inauguration day to “protect and defend the Constitution”, why, they ask, would anyone suppose that he would be more faithful to it the second time round?
Conscious that Trump might succeed in delaying his trials until after the election, and that an acquittal in any of them would give his campaign a dangerous head of steam, two professors of constitutional law, Will Baude and Michael Stokes Paulsen, both influential voices in the conservative Federalist Society, have recently published online an essay proposing another way to pre-empt Trump’s return to the White House.
Over 126 densely and compellingly argued pages, rich with historical case discussion, Baude and Paulsen assert that the constitution being what it is, there is no alternative but to follow the instruction of Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, which states:
No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice-President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States . . . to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.
Since in their view Trump’s design to thwart the will of the electorate, and his incitement to the “mob” to physically force the vice-president to refuse to count the certified votes of the electoral college, most certainly looks like an insurrection, not to disqualify him under Section 3 would be an unconscionable dereliction of civic duty. Unlike a trial, the disqualification would involve no deprivation of liberty or property and would, moreover, be self-enforcing, requiring no further act of Congress or judicial procedure.
All that has to be done, they say, is for secretaries of state around the Union merely to omit Trump’s name from the ballot. Easier said than done, since the clause says nothing about the mechanism of enforcement, leaving one to suppose that appeals against any secretaries of individual states taking action will end up in the Supreme Court. This too would be a moment for which the overused “unprecedented” would be accurate, but quite aside from the politics of the majority it seems unlikely the court would want to curtail so drastically the right of voters to choose their candidate.
In any event, this professorial detonation, especially coming as it does from hardline Federalist Society constitutional originalists, has set the cat among the Republican pigeons. Steven Calabresi, a law professor at Northwestern University and one of the founders of the society, has given his warm endorsement, as has Michael Luttig, writing (another first) together with the famously liberal Laurence Tribe of Harvard.
Michael W McConnell, director of the Constitutional Law Center at Stanford, on the other hand, disputes the assumption that Trump’s misconduct, however grievous, did actually rise to the level of the “insurrection” needed for disqualification under Section 3, a measure originally intended to deny ex-Confederates a path back to public office. Whatever Trump may have done, it did not end up taking the lives of 600,000 Americans. McConnell further warns that a precedent could be set that would weed out anyone merely expressing support for the riotous behaviour with which American history is punctuated.
George Washington never imagined the storm of falsehoods and fantasies raining down on the faithful at a Trump rally
To which Baude and Paulsen reply that orders of magnitude of violence are beside the point and that Section 3 is no anachronism. What unfolded between election night and January 6 was not just your run-of-the-mill riot, but was as much an active conspiracy against the US as secession. As Liz Cheney succinctly put it, Trump “summoned the mob, assembled the mob and lit the flame of this attack”. How much more insurrectionary, short of firing on a fort, does misconduct have to be to qualify for “insurrection or rebellion”? The liberal law academic Eric J Segall has urged those toying with disqualification to ponder for a moment the likely real-life consequences of that action — and presumably — reject it as an act of extreme political recklessness.
But which route courts more peril? Not to make Trump accountable for his attack on the peaceful transfer of power, or to leave that to the voters? Loftily, the Section 3 advocates insist that the US is a constitutional republic and not, as they put it, an Athens-style “mob democracy”. What is the point of having a constitution at all, they say, if, for political reasons, you heed its instruction selectively?
David Cicilline, a former Democratic congressman from Rhode Island who introduced a motion of disqualification in the House of Representatives, remarked: “You don’t get to apply the Constitution sometimes or only if you feel like it. We take an oath. We swear to uphold it. We don’t swear an oath to uphold most of it. If Donald Trump has taught us anything, it’s about protecting the Constitution of the United States.”
Thus, on the very brink of an election, from which, if it goes Trump’s way, there is no coming back for American democracy, another great debate has been opened up by thoughtful conservatives as to which has the sovereign priority: obedience to the letter of the constitution, including Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, or the cautionary sobriety of practical politics?
Trump supporters gather outside Fulton county jail in Atlanta, Georgia, on August 24, when the former president was booked on charges relating to efforts to overturn the 2020 election © Carlos Escalona/Sipa USA
As to which side George Washington would have come down on, there can be little doubt. In their excellent essay in The Atlantic endorsing disqualification, Luttig and Tribe remind us that the first president, in his 1796 Farewell Address, had foreseen many of the elements of this baleful disaster. Politics could become self-poisoning when the “spirit of party . . . agitates the community with ill founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection”.
Washington’s hope was that in a political world where “the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion be enlightened”. But then he had never encountered the likes of Bannon or imagined the storm of falsehoods and fantasies raining down on the faithful at a Trump rally.
He did, however, know that “obstructions to the execution of laws, all combinations and associations under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities” are of “fatal tendency” to free and orderly government.
And though “such combinations or associations may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying thereafter the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion”.
Disqualification? Don’t hold your breath. Trump behind bars? Ditto. The worst just a vote away? Maybe, although recent polls, contrary to much journalistic received wisdom, are showing that the indictments, far from boosting Trump, are doing significant damage to his standing with independent voters who will decide the result of the presidential election. But, whichever way it goes, George Washington would want to say: you have been warned.
Simon Schama is an FT contributing editor. His latest book is ‘Foreign Bodies: Pandemics, Vaccines and the Health of Nations’
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