Opinion | Appeasing Donald Trump Won’t Work

I’m going to begin this column with a rather unusual reading recommendation. If you’ve got an afternoon to kill and want to read 126 pages of heavily footnoted legal argument and historical analysis, I strongly recommend a law review article entitled “The Sweep and Force of Section Three.” It’s a rather dull headline for a highly provocative argument: that Donald Trump is constitutionally disqualified from holding the office of president.

In the article, two respected conservative law professors, William Baude and Michael Stokes Paulsen, make the case that the text, history and tradition of Section 3 of the 14th Amendment — a post-Civil War amendment that prohibited former public officials from holding office again if they “engaged in insurrection or rebellion” or gave “aid or comfort” to those who did — all strongly point to the conclusion that Trump is ineligible for the presidency based on his actions on and related to Jan. 6, 2021. Barring a two-thirds congressional amnesty vote, Trump’s ineligibility, Baude and Paulsen argue, is as absolute as if he were too young to be president or were not a natural-born citizen of the United States.

It’s a fascinating and compelling argument that only grows more compelling with each painstakingly researched page. But as I was reading it, a single, depressing thought came to my mind. Baude and Paulsen’s argument may well represent the single most rigorous and definitive explanation of Section 3 ever put to paper, yet it’s difficult to imagine, at this late date, the Supreme Court ultimately either striking Trump from the ballot or permitting state officials to do so.

As powerful as Baude and Paulsen’s substantive argument is, the late date means that by the time any challenge to Trump’s eligibility might reach the Supreme Court, voters may have already started voting in the Republican primaries. Millions of votes could have been cast. The Supreme Court is already reluctant to change election procedures on the eve of an election. How eager would it be to remove a candidate from the ballot after he’s perhaps even clinched a primary?

While I believe the court should intervene even if the hour is late, it’s worth remembering that it would face this decision only because of the comprehensive failure of congressional Republicans. Let me be specific. There was never any way to remove Trump from American politics through the Democratic Party alone. Ending Trump’s political career required Republican cooperation, and Republicans have shirked their constitutional duties, sometimes through sheer cowardice. They have punted their responsibilities to other branches of government or simply shrunk back in fear of the consequences.

In hindsight, for example, Republican inaction after Jan. 6 boggles the mind. Rather than remove Trump from American politics by convicting him in the Senate after his second impeachment, Republicans punted their responsibilities to the American legal system. As Mitch McConnell said when he voted to acquit Trump, “We have a criminal justice system in this country.” Yet not even a successful prosecution and felony conviction — on any of the charges against him, in any of the multiple venues — can disqualify Trump from serving as president. Because of G.O.P. cowardice, our nation is genuinely facing the possibility of a president’s taking the oath of office while also appealing one or more substantial prison sentences.

Republicans have also punted to the American voters, suggesting that any outstanding questions of Trump’s fitness be decided at the ballot box. It’s a recommendation with some real appeal. (In his most recent newsletter, my colleague Ross Douthat makes a powerful case that only politics can solve the problem of Donald Trump.) “Give the people what they want” is a core element of democratic politics, and if enough people “want” Trump, then who are American politicians or judges to deprive them? Yet the American founders (and the drafters of the 14th Amendment) also knew the necessity of occasionally checking the popular will, and the Constitution thus contains a host of safeguards designed to protect American democracy from majorities run amok. After all, if voting alone were sufficient to protect America from insurrectionist leaders, there would have been no need to draft or ratify Section 3.

Why are Republicans in Congress punting to voters and the legal system? For many of them, the answer lies in raw fear. First, there is the simple political fear of losing a House or Senate seat. In polarized, gerrymandered America, all too many Republican politicians face political risk only from their right, and that “right” appears to be overwhelmingly populated by Trumpists.

But there’s another fear as well, that imposing accountability will only escalate American political division, leading to a tit-for-tat of prosecuted or disqualified politicians. This fear is sometimes difficult to take seriously. For example, conservative podcaster Ben Shapiro raised it, arguing that “running for office now carries the legal risk of going to jail — on all sides.” Yet he had himself written an entire book calling for racketeering charges against Barack Obama.

That said, the idea that vengeful MAGA Republicans might prosecute Democrats out of spite is credible enough to raise concerns outside the infotainment right. Michael McConnell, a conservative professor I admire a great deal (and one who is no fan of Donald Trump), expressed concern about the Section 3 approach to disqualifying Trump. “I worry that this approach could empower partisans to seek disqualification every time a politician supports or speaks in support of the objectives of a political riot,” he wrote, adding, “Imagine how bad actors will use this theory.”

In other words, Trump abused America once, and the fear is that if we hold him accountable, he or his allies will abuse our nation again. I think Professor McConnell’s warnings are correct. Trump and his allies are already advertising their plans for revenge. But if past practice is any guide, Trump and his allies will abuse our nation whether we hold him accountable or not. The abuse is the constant reality of Trump and the movement he leads. Accountability is the variable — dependent on the courage and will of key American leaders — and only accountability has any real hope of stopping the abuse.

A fundamental reality of human existence is that vice often leaves virtue with few good options. Evil men can attach catastrophic risks to virtually any course of action, however admirable. But we can and should learn lessons from history. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, two of our greatest presidents, both faced insurrectionary movements, and their example should teach us today. When Washington faced an open revolt during the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794, he didn’t appease the rebels, instead mobilizing overwhelming force to meet the moment and end the threat.

In 1861, Lincoln rejected advice to abandon Fort Sumter in South Carolina in the hope of avoiding direct confrontation with the nascent Confederate Army. Instead, he ordered the Navy to resupply the fort. The Confederates bombarded Sumter and launched the deadliest war in American history, but there was no point at which Lincoln was going to permit rebels to blackmail the United States into extinction.

If you think the comparisons to the Whiskey Rebellion or the Civil War are overwrought, just consider the consequences had Trump’s plan succeeded. I have previously described Jan. 6 as “America’s near-death day” for good reason. If Mike Pence had declared Trump the victor — or even if the certification of the election had been delayed — one shudders to consider what would have happened next. We would have faced the possibility of two presidents’ being sworn in at once, with the Supreme Court (and ultimately federal law enforcement, or perhaps even the Army) being tasked with deciding which one was truly legitimate.

Thankfully, the American legal system has worked well enough to knock the MAGA movement on its heels. Hundreds of Jan. 6 rioters face criminal justice. The movement’s corrupt lawyers face their own days in court. Trump is indicted in four jurisdictions. Yet all of that work can be undone — and every triumph will turn to defeat — if a disqualified president reclaims power in large part through the fear of his foes.

But the story of Washington and Lincoln doesn’t stop with their decisive victories. While 10 members of the Whiskey Rebellion were tried for treason, only two were convicted, and Washington ultimately pardoned them both. On the eve of final victory, Lincoln’s second Inaugural Address contained words of grace that echo through history, “With malice toward none, with charity for all.”

Victory is not incompatible with mercy, and mercy can be indispensable after victory. But while the threat remains, so must the resolve, even if it means asking the Supreme Court to intervene at the worst possible time. Let me end where I began. Read Baude and Paulsen — and not just for their compelling legal argument. Read and remember what it was like when people of character and conviction inhabited the American political class. They have given us the tools to defend the American experiment. All we need is the will.

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