The Constitution's 3 Ways to Stop a Demagogue Like Trump Haven't Worked. Now What?

The only workable fix for a broken democracy is the will of the people--if necessary, expressed with our marching boots. (Photo: STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer)

The Constitution's 3 Ways to Stop a Demagogue Like Trump Haven't Worked. Now What?

The only thing that could end Trump’s presidency—and the threat of a nuclear first strike on hurricanes or whatever—before January 20, 2021, is a powerful demonstration that a strong majority of the American people find the current state of affairs intolerable.

Alexander Hamilton didn't burst into hip-hop rhymes in real life, but he did anticipate something else about the complicated rhythms of 21st century America. He had a plan to stop a dangerous demagogue like Donald Trump from becoming president.

His idea was the Electoral College. During the debates that led to the U.S. Constitution in 1787, Hamilton was one of the Founders who argued allowing the masses of new Americans to directly elect their president was a recipe for the eventual rise of a popular despot. The people, he argued, should instead elect a slate of wise men (because they were all men in 1787), or elites, who would use their accumulated wisdom to funnel the popular will into a beneficent president of the United States.

Hamilton wrote in Federalist Paper No. 68 in support of choosing the American president through this Electoral College that "[a] small number of persons, selected by their fellow citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to so complicated an investigation."

I'll take Donald Trump for $200, Alex.

Needless to say, there was virtually no "investigation," let alone "discernment," in December of 2016 when members of the Electoral College gathered in the 50 state capitals (and D.C) and 304 of the 306 electors presumed to be pledged for Trump cast the ballots that officially made him our 45th president. To borrow Hamilton's phrasing, these electors possessed the information that the New York developer was then accused of sexual misconduct by nearly 20 women (a list that's continued to grow) and had even bragged about his assaults on an audiotape, that he'd openly asked Russia to hack his opponent's emails and that he'd called for a ban on members of the Muslim religion from entering the United States, among many problematic things. They elected him anyway.

Nor should that be any surprise. After more than two centuries of marketing ourselves as "the world's greatest democracy," the idea that the presidential ballots cast by everyday citizens in November could be tossed in the trash a month later by a member of the nation's political elite is just something that maybe made sense from a 1787 quill pen but doesn't compute today. Alexander Hamilton's plan to save America from demagoguery didn't work. Can anything?

This month, in the supposed dog days of August, the question of how to handle an unfit president has taken on a powerful new urgency, as President Trump has unraveled right in front of us. The public meltdowns and beyond-oddities -- from embracing a crackpot scheme to buy Greenland from Denmark to the point of canceling an official visit to Copenhagen, to lashing out at American Jews who vote Democratic as "disloyal" and "hereby order"-ing private firms not to do business with China, to looking skyward and proclaiming himself "the Chosen One" (on China trade, but still...) -- are getting worse and worse by that day. And that's only what we see.

The recent Axios report that Trump has asked on two or more occasions about using nuclear bombs to stop hurricanes from striking the continental United States stands as a stark reminder that the American president can, on any whim, issue a 5-second order that (if obeyed) could seriously harm and maybe destroy life on this planet. Suddenly, a topic that was only discussed by the unfiltered internet masses -- is Trump mentally ill, or at age 73 suffering a steep decline in mental acuity -- has gone mainstream, discussed openly by pundits like CNN's Brian Stelter ("It's getting worse -- we all can see it") or with presidential candidates like New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker calling him "a dangerous president."

But here's the thing: Over these last 232 years, the authors of the Constitution and its later editors gave us not one but three -- count 'em, three! -- tools to prevent someone who was mentally, physically or morally unfit from occupying the White House. None of these tools seem to really work now that we really need them. Let's look briefly at why:

Electoral College: The clearest symbol of how implausible Hamilton's notion of independent elites not susceptible to what he called the "heats and ferments" of the moment has become is the now-popular phrase for an elector who spurns the winner of his state's popular vote. "A faithless elector." It's interesting that Trump's public meltdown has occurred at the same time that a federal appeals court in Colorado has ruled that it's unconstitutional for states to prevent an elector from voting his conscience (which a Bloomberg opinion writer says opens the door for "chaos").

It's too late for the 2016 Electoral College and I have to agree that Hamilton's idea doesn't work in today's world, when the masses already believe -- with much justification -- that elites have gotten most everything else wrong. Those who on the left side of the political dial who pleaded with electors in 2016 to reject Trump would have lost their minds if, say, a white elector from Florida had rejected Barack Obama because of his race. The real solution to the Electoral College is to ditch it, which brings us to...

The 25th Amendment: Adopted in 1967 -- i.e., the height of the Cold War with the USSR -- the amendment deals with several uncertainties about presidential power and secession in a nuclear age when even 5 minutes of uncertainty over who's in charge could not be tolerated. Among other things, the 25th Amendment allows a president who's undergoing a medical procedure to delegate his power to his vice president, but it also creates a procedure for the Cabinet and -- in the case of president who's unwell but insists that he isn't -- maybe Congress to replace a disabled POTUS, temporarily or permanently.

In theory, the 25th Amendment could be invoked for a president's slide into mental illness -- a theory widely embraced on Twitter (#25thAmendmentNow is a hugely popular hashtag) and by liberal cable-TV hosts -- but ... let's get real. The dilemma facing America in deciding whether the captain of our ship is suffering from insanity is a lot like the mutinous sailors on the U.S.S. Caine trying to decide what to make of Captain Queeg's hunt for a strawberry thief. (Queeg was officially found not insane, by the way.) Trump's Cabinet of hard core loyalists and pathetic sycophants would never vote to remove its Dear Leader -- unless Vice President Mike Pence is a lot more Machiavellian than we all believe. And do we really want America's government run by Machiavellian Mike Pence? Which leaves....

Impeachment: Unlike the 25th Amendment, this could actually happen -- especially with opposition Democrats now controlling the House. In recent weeks, there's been a weird interplay between the president's Great Unraveling and the House impeachment process, which has been proceeding unofficially at a snail's pace, weighed down by the opposition from the one Democrat with too much power over the process, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

"The public isn't there on impeachment," Pelosi said after a week in which maybe a dozen everyday folks asked me, "Do you know what's wrong with the president?" When I say there's been some weird interplay on impeachment, I mean that the public process is very focused on the constitutional language of "high crimes and misdemeanors" and even more narrowly on the Mueller report, which lays out a damning but, frankly, complicated argument for presidential obstruction of justice.

Frankly, there's better impeachment cases in Trump's role as "Individual-One" in a campaign-finance felony and his nonstop violations of the Emoluments Clause. But despite Pelosi's resistance, a whopping 135 House Democrats have endorsed a full-blown impeachment inquiry. Why the late rush to hop on the impeachment bandwagon? Frankly, I think it's less over "high crimes and misdemeanors" and more over what we can all see with our own eyes. Donald Trump is simply unfit.

So now what? If the 243-year history of the American Experience has taught us anything, it's that we enormously value the will of the people (even if that's sometimes more in theory than in practice). The fact that Trump was able to play Electoral College bingo and rack up 306 (or 304) electoral votes on November 8, 2016 (even as his opponent gained roughly 3 million more popular votes) has been given enormous respect by the political elites -- arguably too much so, in light of the president's subsequent conduct.

But the only thing that could end Trump's presidency -- and the threat of a nuclear first strike on hurricanes or whatever -- before January 20, 2021, is a powerful demonstration that a strong majority of the American people find the current state of affairs intolerable. The people of Puerto Rico showed us the way -- clogging the streets of San Juan until the rule of an arguably much-less-unfit-than-Trump governor was over. If Nancy Pelosi needs to be shown the people are "there" on impeaching Trump, then people need to show her, dramatically. The only workable fix for a broken democracy is the will of the people -- if necessary, expressed with our marching boots.

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