My biggest preoccupation since November 8 has been wondering whether Donald Trump is competent enough to be a tyrant.
The Founders took great pains to king-proof our government. Having just fought a war for independence from a king, they thought of every conceivable path from self-government to autocracy, and designed mechanisms to prevent it.
The Constitution includes dual protections against tyranny. The first safeguard exists to prevent the people from rashly electing a demagogue who stirs their passions. The second safeguard is the balance and separation of powers.
The first safeguard already failed. The Republican nominating convention could have stopped Trump, but didn’t. The electoral college could have stopped him, but didn’t.
Now we wait and see if our leaders will utilize the second safeguard. They don’t inspire confidence.
Before the election, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan literally would not be seen in public with Donald Trump. But he still voted for him.
In the first move of his presidency, Trump lied obsessively for three days about the size of the crowd at his inauguration. His loyal apologists hit the TV shows to contradict what everyone could see with their own eyes.
In a second move, thanks to his delusional obsessiveness over losing the popular vote, Trump promised to investigate voter fraud, falsely claiming that millions of people in urban areas voted illegally. Sensible Republicans were forced to admit that voter fraud is not, actually, a real problem.
Last weekend, sparking the second round of worldwide protests in two weeks, Trump sneak ordered a ban of refugees and immigrants from specific Muslim countries. His loyalists hemmed and hawed in its defense. Nevermind logic, damnit, we feel tough now! Sensible Republican leaders rightly criticized the ban for being impulsive, horribly mismanaged, and counterproductive to the goal of keeping the country safe.
Trump then insulted Australia, a close ally, over a refugee agreement signed under the previous administration. Congress scrambled to reassure Australia that everything is OK.
Talk is cheap. Republican lawmakers can easily save face like they did during the campaign– criticizing Trump’s words and actions when they violate fundamental American principles. But will they ever put their votes where their mouth is?
One option is to keep enabling Trump’s reckless incompetence. American credibility will corrode with each passing week. Allies and enemies will lose patience. The proverbial shit will hit the fan, sooner or later.
Another option is to rid the body of the poison. Block everything. Isolate the damage. Jump at the first opportunity for impeachment.
The Founders saw impeachment as the ultimate check on power, the appropriate response for a leader who demonstrated gross incompetence or abuse of power. James Madison argued that impeachment was necessary to protect the community against the “incapacity, negligence, or perfidy” of a president. Benjamin Franklin saw grounds for impeachment when a president “rendered himself obnoxious.”
In the crafting of the Constitution, the language for impeachment first included only “Bribery and Treason.” Briefly added to the list was “maladministration,” but this word was thought too vague. They eventually settled on adding “high crimes and misdemeanors.” The phrase was common parlance to describe not only specific violations of law, but betrayals of public trust and actions injurious to society.
A simple majority vote by the House of Representatives starts the impeachment process. The Senate can then conduct a trial, followed by a two-thirds vote needed to remove the president from office.
Might it be bad for democracy to thwart an elected president?
I don’t think so. Trump is an aberration. This is not “obstruction” in the sense of using political motivation to prevent the president from implementing policy. Nobody would be protesting in the streets if Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio, or even Ted Cruz, had been elected. Trump is unfit for office by temperament, lack of knowledge and experience, conflicts of interest, etc. This becomes more obvious by the day.
Yes, the voters elected Trump. But the voters were rash. Passions captured by a fire breathing made-for-TV demagogue.
The Founding Fathers anticipated this error and provided tools for the error to be corrected. We have a filtering mechanism for would-be country wreckers.
We just need leaders with the fortitude to use it.