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The Constitution Is Foolproof, But It Isn’t Damned Fool Proof


Let’s start at the beginning: our president is a fool.

President Trump has been in office long enough to demonstrate a chronic lack of elementary prudence or any shred of self-discipline. He has a knack for constantly creating crises by his own recklessness. He does things like set off totally unnecessary tensions with South Korea because he likes to shoot off his mouth about getting other countries to pay for things we want. He shares sensitive intelligence with the Russians just to boast.

His chief of staff struggles to keep him from picking up unverified reports and Internet hoaxes and repeating them as the truth. His press secretary and chief of staff spend half their time denying the plain meaning of reckless statements he made in a fit of pique on Twitter. He gives a vast, vague, and impossibly ambitious portfolio to his son-in-law, who has no prior experience in government. His administration leaks like a sieve, with everyone trying to manipulate the media to jockey for advantage in a constant internecine struggle. And despite everything we expected from his history in show business, he’s not even good at firing someone.

Maybe Trump needs to get rid of White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and bring back his “Apprentice” producer Mark Burnett, because that’s the only person who has ever managed to make Donald Trump look like he knew what the heck he was doing.

Perhaps you are still at the stage of reflexively dismissing all of these debacles as “fake news.” Perhaps the bias of the press—which is real and egregious—has you unwilling to to believe that behind all this smoke there is any fire. Fine. Eventually the disasters will pile so high that you will be forced to admit President Trump is making a mess of things. Certainly, the fact that so many of my friends on the Right are fighting amongst themselves, that so many have given up making excuses for Trump this early in his presidency, is a testament to his inability to inspire confidence even within his own party.

Yet there is nothing we can do about it. The Constitution is foolproof, but it isn’t damned fool proof.

I say this because some have been trying to come up with a legal procedure for replacing the president. Since November, Democrats have been yearning for an electoral do-over, trying to use Russian meddling as an excuse to throw out the election results and—well, it’s not very clear what they would do next, but by some kind of Underpants Gnomes chain of reasoning, their fantasy usually ends with Hillary Clinton being installed as president by acclamation.

Now an increasing number of people on the Right have been scrabbling for an easy out from the era of Trump, dreaming up ways to put the constitutional skids under him and wind up, through a much more logical chain of events, with President Pence. Ross Douthat, the reigning token conservative columnist at the New York Times, just suggested using the 25th Amendment, which designed to replace the president if he becomes “incapacitated,” to declare President Trump “witless” by a consensus of the cabinet and remove him. It is the only response, he writes, to “his incapacity to really govern, to truly execute the serious duties that fall to him to carry out.”

That would have sounded a whole lot more convincing without all of the “really” and “truly.” It sounds like Trump is No True President. In fact, Trump is able to govern and execute his duties. He’s just going to do it very badly, and there’s nothing we can do about that. If being witless, foolish, irresponsible, and ignorant were grounds for removal from office, then we might as well pack up our system of government right now, because the same could be said of many other duly elected officials.

All of this smacks of an attempt by elites in DC and in the media to make this president go away without having to deal with or persuade those unsavory characters—all 63 million of them—who voted for Trump.

But that’s not how our system works. There is no end run around the people, no escape clause from the consent of the governed. Our Founders could certainly have chosen to create some new form of aristocracy. There were those (ahem, Hamilton) who might have liked some form of rule by the elite. But in the end, they wisely judged that it would be easier for the people to correct their own folly than for them to check the follies of an unaccountable elite.

So that’s the only option left: to patiently explain where we went wrong, and to wait for the people to recognize and correct their own folly. For that goal, the best result is simply to let this administration play itself out.

We’ve all seen the old cartoon with an eighteenth-century tableau of our Founding Fathers, where one of them wonders: “I keep thinking we should include something in the Constitution in case the people elect a complete moron.” They certainly did put in a lot of things to prepare for that eventuality. There are constitutional safeguards that limit the president’s damage simply by limiting the scope of his power, as we can observe in the progress—or lack thereof—of President Trump’s domestic agenda. Let’s just say that if you’re waiting for him to build that wall, you’re going to be waiting a while.

The greatest damage will be in the areas where the president has the broadest constitutional authority, which unfortunately include national security, foreign policy, and the military. So we can expect him to continue to offend our allies at a rate of one a week for the indefinite future. We’re just going to have to hope that there are enough people in the bureaucratic establishment and at the top levels of the administration—people like James Mattis and H.R. McMaster—who are willing to wake up every morning and shoulder the hard and unglamorous job of talking the president down from whatever ledge he has talked himself onto that day.

It’s not going to be pretty, but I think we need to follow the Mencken Dictum: the idea that “the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.” The American people had their chance to observe Trump for more than a year. Republican voters were offered a dozen better options, yet they chose Trump in the primaries. Democratic voters had their chance to nominate a better alternative, and instead they put forward the least inspiring candidate since Michael Dukakis. The overwhelming majority of voters chose foolishly, and perhaps they need to experience the rough consequences.

I first made this argument back in 2014 to explain why we shouldn’t impeach President Obama. One of the lessons voters needed to learn, I argued, was “the perils of believing in a great leader who will solve all their problems.” It looks like we need another go-around, from the other side, to drive that lesson home.

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