We live in an era of alarmism. Everyone, or at least Trump opponents, seems alarmed nearly all the time. Even when we can’t quite summon the energy, we’re expected to be outraged. Our outrage is then presented as a badge of honor, evidence of virtue at a time of historic challenge to the Republic. But the nature of the outrage – overwrought before even Trump took office – has taken a new turn.
We are confronted daily not simply with outrage, but a kind of end-of-worldism: America is on the brink of dictatorship; Trump is going start World War III; the president’s access to the nuclear codes might actually destroy the universe; if he manages to control his impulses, then his withdrawal from the Paris climate change accords will still destroy the universe, just a bit more slowly.
As someone who works on the Middle East, I find myself, oddly enough, in a near constant state of relief. Nine months into Trump’s tenure, it could have been better, but it could just as well have been worse, perhaps much worse.
The world hasn’t ended.
Every new day, though, seems to bring new cause for panic. Republican Senator Bob Corker’s biting remark that “the White House has become an adult day care center,” and that “someone obviously missed their shift” was tailor made for liberal fantasies. Vanity Fair correspondent Gabriel Sherman, parrying the thin line dividing news and gossip, reported on the “speculations” of an unnamed former official. According to the official, there was the open question of whether White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and Secretary of Defense James Mattis would “tackle” Trump, presumably to prevent him from ordering a nuclear strike.
Before Trump even had a chance to prove just how unfit for office he was, liberals and Democrats were already preemptively tossing around the word “impeachment.” The vigor for the Russia investigation is driven, in part, by the hope that clear evidence of criminal activity will emerge, thereby justifying the introduction of articles of impeachment. Yet despite no smoking gun, 40 percent of Americans – and more worryingly 72 percent of Democrats – say they would support impeachment, according to one recent poll.
If unimpeachable evidence does, in fact, emerge, then fine. Since some are realizing how unlikely this is, the conversation is now moving onto the 25th amendment, with mainstream outlets covering it as a serious possibility. It’s almost as if the goal is to find a reason to get rid of Trump, by any means, or amendment, possible. The very eagerness with which some on the left (and the never-Trump right) are raising such drastic measures is, itself, cause for concern.
A plain reading of 25th amendment makes clear that it doesn’t apply to our current situation. Section 4 allows a majority of cabinet members or Congress to submit a written declaration that “the president is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” President Trump is able to discharge the powers of the presidency; the problem is how he discharges them, and the fact that many Americans believe (rightly) that he is discharging them rather badly. This is primarily a political, and therefore a subjective, judgment. To state the obvious, Americans, like all citizens of a democracy, have the right to elect bad, even very bad, politicians.
Yet someone as well regarded as legal scholar Eric Posner has made the argument, shared by apparently millions, that Americans should consider new ways, however unprecedented, to remove a president who reaches a certain level of subjective badness. Posner is explicit about this, writing that the president “can be removed, under the conventional understanding of the 25th Amendment, if he is incapacitated by mental or physical illness. But there is no obvious solution for a president who has not committed a crime or been disabled by illness, but has lost the confidence of the public because of a failure of temperament, ideology or ability.”
The argument amounts to something more simple and sinister: that presidents who express ideologies that we find outside the bounds of acceptability can be removed, despite being democratically elected by voters. Posner is also quite explicit that he is talking about political, not mental, incompetence. The entirely subjective criteria, which could easily be applied to any president going forward, include: “[His] values fall outside the mainstream… he lacks the interest or attention span to inform himself about issues; or he lacks management abilities and is unable to govern effectively.” Tennessee Congressman Steve Cohen makes a similarly ideological argument for impeachment that bears no relation to anything the constitution says: “If the president can’t recognize the difference between these domestic terrorists and the people who oppose their anti-American attitudes, then he cannot defend us.”
Ironically, the arguments made by the likes of Posner and Cohen represent a greater long-term threat to American democracy than anything Trump has done so far. With the exception of some tweets that have raised the possibility of de-licensing certain networks or challenging judicial independence, Trump’s actual policies have been a number of things: damaging, dishonorable, illiberal, and racist, but they have not been undemocratic. Making this distinction – difficult for Americans since constitutional liberalism and democracy have gone hand in hand – has never been more important.
To take one example, modified versions of the January “Muslim ban” were bigoted and mean-spirited and counterproductive, but there was nothing intrinsically undemocratic about them. In other words, the president, like heads of government in any other country, has considerable leeway in deciding which non-citizens are permitted to enter the country. The rescinding of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which allows minors who entered the country illegally to stay, is cruel, but it is not undemocratic (particularly considering Trump campaigned explicitly on reversing it on “day one.”) To take this one step further, after reviewing Trump’s most controversial policy ideas – the ones that have been implemented and not merely mentioned in passing in unscripted campaign speeches – none of them can be deemed, strictly-speaking, undemocratic.
In effect, what many Democrats would like, whether explicitly declared or privately hoped for, is the criminalization of behavior that the “smarter” or “rational” among us deem unacceptable, racist, or evil. But, the great thing, and sometimes the scariest thing, about democracy is that it explicitly allows people to be, well, evil, as long their “evil” is expressed within the the law. Democracy is not meant to protect us from other Americans we don’t like.
Perceiving our fellow citizens, endowed with the same rights as the rest of us, as fundamentally “irrational” in a way that, in effect, excommunicates them from society, leads us toward other dangers. If they are deemed irredeemable, then we must search for explanations of how they became this way. As Alan Jacobs, author of “How to Think,” tells Emma Green here in The Atlantic: “Conspiracy theories tend to arise when you can’t think of any rational explanation for people believing or acting in a certain way. The more absurd you think your political or moral or spiritual opponents’ views are, the more likely you are to look for some explanation other than the simplest one, which is that they believe it’s true.”
Jacobs continues: “One category that’s gone away in America is ‘wrong’.” It just happens to be that the right to be wrong is at the core of the democratic idea. Without it, there isn’t much left. We might not be able to control Donald Trump, nor should we expect to, but America will survive Trump. It is less clear whether we will find a way past some of our own darker impulses, however well intentioned they might be. Once the door to the criminalization of political and ideological disagreement is opened, it may be near impossible to close it.