After months of watching the Trump clown show, I am decidedly torn—which is to say, I am decidedly undecided—as to whether the orange-hued clown is closer to a buffoonish ignoramus in over his head, or is in fact closer to a true would-be fascist who represents something akin to an existential threat to our Madisonian system of American constitutional governance. That I cannot tell which description is more accurate is not, of course, my problem; it is Donald Trump’s problem.
One thing that has been so painful for me, as a constitutional conservative and an avowed #NeverTrump-er, is not necessarily to bemoan the way in which the Branch Trumpidian cultists and their “intellectual skinhead” alt-right ilk fall so madly in love with their dear leader, but to see how many legitimate constitutional conservatives are now falling in line behind the narcissistic vulgarian. Some of these folks are well-intentioned tribalists—those who see a “R” next to the orange man’s name and immediately conclude he must be a superior form of cyanide to that which is offered by the Clinton clan. The tribalists, of course, fall victim to the “politics is just like sports” fallacy that Leon Wolf nicely did away with. Some others of these folks are planning to vote for Trump purely to try to save the Supreme Court; I attempted to refute this lattermost argument last week.
Above all else, what I think is most frustrating about the willingness of so many of these legitimate constitutional conservatives—frankly, even amongst those who join #NeverTrump amidst what I call “the Resistance,” and who would only hold their nose to vote for Trump this November—is to so casually overlook some of the most perilous lessons of history. When I opine that I legitimately cannot tell whether Trump is closer to a mere wildly uninformed bloviator or a true iconoclastic institution-destroyer, I actually mean that. Far too many are willing to take the risk that he is the former, and think that maybe they can control the orange-hued would-be overlord. Certainly, Trump’s SCOTUS judges list, insofar as it was so clearly put together by the Federalist Society and/or the Heritage Foundation, will only bolster the kowtowers’ belief that the clown can be managed.
Of all that I have read, left-wing journalist Alex Gopnik hit the nail on the head here when he wrote in The New Yorker (emphasis added in bold):
[Trump] makes his enmity to American values clear when he suggests that the Presidency holds absolute power, through which he will be able to end opposition—whether by questioning the ownership of newspapers or talking about changing libel laws or threatening to take away F.C.C. licenses. To say ‘Well, he would not really have the power to accomplish that’ is to misunderstand the nature of thin-skinned authoritarians in power. They do not arrive in office and discover, as constitutionalists do, that their capabilities are more limited than they imagined. They arrive, and then make their power as large as they can.
The issue with these well-intentioned constitutional conservatives, I believe, is that they are either too casually dismissive of or are not sufficiently scared of the very real historical perils of nations falling victim to undiluted authoritarianism. Some of these folks are so (properly) gung-ho about American constitutionalism, and so peppy about Tocquevillian democracy, that they cannot properly channel a more Machiavellian lens to decipher the motives of ill-intentioned malevolent actors. There is no real reason why authoritarianism cannot ever take hold in America, if We the People willfully discard our own constant vigilance. Yes, the Constitution’s structural safeguards for the preservation of individual liberty—via both the separation of powers and federalism—are permanently entrenched precisely in order to guard against such a result. Yet, at the same time, Thomas Jefferson only thought the Constitution would last 19 years, and many others from the Founding generation also viewed the Constitution as less of an eternal guide and more of a merely marked improvement over the failed Articles of Confederation.
Those who ignore the decisively strongman overtones in Trumpist discourse frankly have too abounding a faith in the ability of our institutions—as presently situated—to structurally preclude such a frightening usurpation. The judiciary’s own “hubris,” as Justice Antonin Scalia reminded us in his Obergefell v. Hodges dissent last term, has actually counter-intuitively served to remind the courts of their own “impotence.” Congress, via the complete abandonment of the “non-delegation doctrine,” has ceded increasingly large swaths of power to the Executive Branch’s administrative apparatus in a series of moves that Senator Ben Sasse eloquently referred to in his Senate floor maiden speech as amounting to “symbiotic legislative underreach.” Most states, furthermore, are all too willing to cower to federal authority: even pro-life Governor Mary Fallin, sitting in one of America’s most conservative states, is unwilling to affix her signature to a bill that would brazenly reject Oklahoma’s timid submission to the judicial despotism of Roe v. Wade. Many of us in the Tea Party who thought we were experiencing a true grassroots constitutionalist movement now instead look silly for having been partially duped by the brute populists in our midst.
I humbly urge my fellow constitutional conservatives who would submit to Donald Trump to consider all of this. The man is a legitimate demagogue who foments divisiveness by “other”-izing as many minorities as he possibly can. He refuses to sufficiently distance himself from or otherwise condemn his legions of white supremacist acolytes and virulent neo-Nazi fanboys. He praises dictators like Vladimir Putin, and he retweets Mussolini quotes. He brags about how he can jam war crime orders down the throats of honorably serving military officers. He thinks judges sign bills, and more generally knows less about how the Constitution and American self-governance works than does your median middle schooler.
Maybe he does turn out to be more controllable buffoon than would-be fascist. Are you really willing to risk that, though? Like Ross Douthat, I am not:
It would be possible to justify support for Trump if he merely promised a period of chaos for conservatism. But to support Trump for the presidency is to invite chaos upon the republic and the world. No policy goal, no court appointment, can justify such recklessness.