At long last, wake up and notice the moment. Hear the argument.
Anti-Trump legal scholars have been arguing that the third clause of the 14th Amendment, a post-Civil War measure barring Confederates from holding public office after participating in an insurrection, can be used against Donald Trump. Attaching a broken boxcar to the back of this moving train, an Aug. 25 essay at Politico casually compares the case for 14th Amendment disqualification from the presidency to the disqualification of southern congressmen during the Civil War.
You may have already spotted a problem in that last sentence because the story Joshua Zeitz writes about Trump and the 14th Amendment has nothing to do with the 14th Amendment: It’s a story about the refusal of the House of Representatives to take notice of southern congressman in 1864, well before the Reconstruction amendments were ratified. With that in mind, go read it.
The subtext speaks louder than the text. Notice the framing; notice the language that colors the argument. Here’s how Zeitz describes the context for the 14th Amendment: “They had vanquished the Confederacy and compelled Southern states to remain in the Union.”
Here’s how he opens his description of the contest over who would be seated in the House in 1864:
These events alarmed and appalled most Republicans, and especially radicals like Rep. Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, the grim-faced, irascible “Dictator of the House.” With his piercing gaze and ruthless authority, Stevens, who served as chair of the Ways and Means Committee during the war, was also the unspoken floor leader for the House Republican caucus. He maintained tight control over the chamber, even as he advocated policies that were far more radical than his caucus in his desire to punish the South and impose Black political and economic equality. Stevens advanced the idea that the Southern states were “conquered territories,” their residents no longer citizens of the U.S. and certainly not entitled to govern themselves, let alone participate in the governance of the whole nation.
So what should we do about Donald Trump? Well, there’s this great moment in history in which a grim-faced dictator maintained tight control for the purpose of implementing radically punitive policies over conquered territories to dominate people who were not entitled to govern themselves.
That’s the discussion we’re having. The people Angelo Codevilla called the American ruling class, the hegemonic academic-political-media hive people, are now casually discussing Trump and Trump voters as a conquered people who have to be dominated and kept out of the system of self-government. Because Trump is a dangerous authoritarian, you see.
Start looking for this unstated premise, and you’ll start finding it everywhere. There are no legitimate arguments to the right of Hakeem Jeffries; there is only dangerous Putin-influenced extremism that must be firmly suppressed. We are not engaged in anything resembling political debate.
I find NYU professor Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a hilariously obtuse expert on authoritarianism, an especially helpful source for parsing the eliminationist radicalism of the moment because she has the quality of mind that allows her to slop her givens all over the page without ever thinking about them at all. What should we do about Trump? Well, “lots of other heads of state have been prosecuted, convicted, sentenced to jail or house arrest,” so we just need to be more like the countries that imprison their political leaders. In fact, “Trump arrest=democracy in action.” What should we think of the presidential candidacy of Vivek Ramaswamy? It’s authoritarian for him to be allowed a platform because it’s “designed to get more poisonous extremist ideas into the mainstream and further degrade democratic politics.” Allowing Republicans to speak is an extremist assault on democracy; arresting them is “democracy in action.” And again, that’s where we are.
Politico, the house organ of the American ruling class, has an idea about how we can deal with Trump and his supporters, and their idea calmly starts with a comparison to the way the federal government dealt with the vanquished Confederacy.
It’s no longer correct to say the mask is slipping. At this late moment, there is no mask.