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Trump Just Lit the Fuse on the Most Dangerous Constitutional Crisis in a Century

July 20, 2020
Trump Just Lit the Fuse on the Most Dangerous Constitutional Crisis in a Century
(GettyImages / Shutterstock)

1. Powder Keg

In the midst of all the other news he made during his interview with Chris Wallace on Sunday, President Trump lit the fuse on what could become an extremely dangerous constitutional crisis.

Wallace asked the sitting president of the United States a simple question:

TRUMP: I’m not a good loser. I don’t like to lose. I don’t lose too often. I don’t like to lose.

WALLACE: But are you gracious?

TRUMP: You don’t know until you see. It depends. I think mail-in voting is — is going to rig the election. I really do.

WALLACE: Are you suggesting that you might not accept the results of the election?

TRUMP: No, I have to see. Look, Hillary Clinton asked me the same thing.

WALLACE: No, I asked you the same thing at the debate.

TRUMP: No, no, but — . . .

TRUMP: And, you know what, she’s the one that never accepted it.

WALLACE: I agree.

TRUMP: She never accepted her loss. And she looks like a fool.

WALLACE: But can you give a — can you give a direct answer, you will accept the election?

TRUMP: I have to see. Look, you – I have to see. No, I’m not going to just say yes. I’m not going to say no. And I didn’t last time either.

These are dangerous waters.

Trump is twice asked a direct question about the peaceful transition of power: “Will you accept the election?”

And Trump twice refuses to give the only acceptable answer: “Yes.”

If you were determined to give Trump the benefit of the doubt, you might argue something like,

Of course he’ll respect the results of the election, he just means that maybe the voting will have irregularities or will require a recount and he means he’ll keep his legal options open. All he’s really saying is, “I’m not promising to concede just because the Fake News says I lost. I’ll wait for the full and fair certifications.”

Yet even that interpretation doesn’t really hold together.

For starters, if that’s what Trump meant, he could have just, you know, said those words.

But the most likely path to a crisis isn’t a president who says, “I understand that I lost by 6 million votes, but I do not like this outcome and will not be leaving.”

No, the path to crisis is a president who says, “These results claiming I lost by 6 million votes are illegitimate. The vote was rigged and it was not a fair election. We are going to contest the results with every option available to us and prove that I, in fact, won.”

And then this president begins using his extralegal powers to lean on Republican officeholders in both the Congress and state governments.

What happens then?

Do you think that’s the moment the Republican party cuts Trump loose?

Because I do not. I rather think Republicans would continue to do what they have always done: Cling to Trump, no matter what, on the assumption that their own political futures depend the party’s base seeing them as “loyal” to Trump.

They will continue to calculate that “You can be on this hell ship or you can be in the water drowning.”

At that point the best-case scenario would be that the president of the United States—a man who has previously labeled his opponents “traitors” and complained of opposition launching a “coup”—leaves office peacefully while maintaining that he is the legitimate winner of the election. This would result in some very large number of Americans—30 million? 50 million?—believing that the election was rigged and the new president is the product of a putsch.

And the worst-case scenario is that the country confronts its first non-peaceful transition of power.

Politics is, as the adage goes, war by other means. Because of that truth, the transition of political power is a fraught exercise. It is one of America’s signal achievements that we have made the transition of political power so peaceable as to become routine.

But to take this routine for granted is to forget that the process is, by definition, a powder keg. And the job of every American president is to insulate this powder keg by reassuring the citizenry that the process will continue into the indefinite future, no matter what.

Instead, Donald Trump sits there playing with matches.

You should watch—closely—to see which members of Trump’s party have spoken up forcefully to rebuke him for this recklessness.

Because anyone who does not try to defuse this time bomb now will have been complicit if it explodes.

2. Portland and 2A

One of the things I am fascinated by is the disconnect between Second Amendment lovers and the secret police-like behavior of the federal government.

You may remember the Bundy incident in 2014, where a bunch of Great Patriotic 2A Enthusiasts got into a standoff with the federal government. Many elected Republicans were more or less on Bundy’s side. (They eventually backtracked after Bundy showed who he really is.) The basic thrust of GOP arguments was: The federal government has too much power. Just because the federal government can do something doesn’t mean that they should do something. We have the constitutional right to bear arms specifically to protect ourselves from abuse from the government.

Also: By total coincidence the president of the United States at the time was black.

Now we have actual secret police-like behavior in Portland. And what do you hear from Republicans and Second Amendment people? [crickets]

This is interesting for two reasons.

The first is that it sheds light on the proximate concerns of at least parts of the 2A caucus. They are less concerned with actual government abuses than with who their perceived enemies are.

The second is that, to a very large degree, the 2A people are right about guns protecting you from government abuses.

We’ve had an in vivo experiment over the last couple months where we had two types of protesters in America. One class was the long-gun cosplayers we saw in places such as Lansing and Richmond. The other type was the unarmed protesters who showed up in many American cities after George Floyd’s murder.

In the first case, law enforcement kept their distance and bent over backwards not to create a confrontation. In the second case, law enforcement did more or less whatever they wanted.

There are some differences between the two groups. As a class, the armed protesters were more peaceful (though not 100 percent so). But a big part of what happened was that legal, but imprudent, “lawful orders” were given to one group but not the other.

In many of the Floyd protests, police would escalate to violence on the pretext that they’d given a “lawful order” with which the (unarmed) protesters did not comply. When the protesters were clearly armed, law enforcement seemed to be much less eager to clear areas or issue capricious orders about where protesters could or could not stand.

Imagine that.

It’s a discouraging lesson in realpolitik and the intersection of First and Second Amendment rights.

3. Catholic Schools

A great Nicole Stelle Garnett piece on Catholic schools in City Journal:

In January 2018, Bishop Martin Holley announced that all Memphis Jubilee Schools—an urban network serving disadvantaged children—would close at the end of the 2018–19 school year, primarily because of financial concerns, and reopen in the fall as charters. The decision, affecting nearly 1,500 students, rocked the Catholic educational world. For decades, the Jubilee network—the “Miracle in Memphis”—had been a bright spot in an otherwise bleak reality facing Catholic schools. Nearly 20 years earlier, Holley’s predecessor, Bishop Terry Steib, had reopened nine previously closed Catholic schools to serve low-income Memphis kids. Steib later added several schools, including the only Catholic high school in Memphis’s urban core, to the network. Almost all the kids attending were poor and paid little or no tuition; most were African-American and Hispanic. And the schools got real results.

Catholic educators put the best face on the charter change. Former diocesan superintendent Mary McDonald, a Jubilee architect, likened the transition to a parent watching a child graduate from college or get married. “Now it’s time for the child to move on and do what is the next best thing in that child’s life. . . . The bottom line is how we can assure that the children are receiving the education they need to give Memphis an educated workforce and lift people out of poverty.” In other words, poor kids in Memphis don’t need Catholic schools because they have charters.

The closure of the Jubilee Schools and their conversion into secular charter schools is part of a trend. As Peter Schuck observed in Why Government Fails So Often, the government’s decision to fund a service can (and often does) “crowd out” other providers of a similar service. The “charter compromise” on parental choice has had exactly this effect, with charters squeezing urban Catholic schools that had long been the best (and often only) alternative to failing public schools for disadvantaged kids.

Read the whole thing.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.