There is a lot of loose talk these days about the supposedly unprecedented threat Donald Trump poses to all things good and true and American: democracy, a free press, our sacrosanct Constitution. Yet specifics are often lacking. “This is how fascism comes to America,” warns the neocon theorist Robert Kagan. It seems fair to wonder, though, how exactly Kagan’s notorious late-1990s Project for a New American Century differed substantively from Trump’s oft-repeated promise to “make American great again.”
Still, one does get the sense that Trump’s toxic brew of vulgarity, outright bigotry and unapologetic disregard for our country’s most basic political commitments is, in fact, something new under the sun. In the interest of offering a little more nuance than Trump’s neocon opponents in the Republican Party seem inclined to provide, we asked three writers to consider the precise nature of the threat Trump poses to the Constitution, democracy, and the freedom of the press, and to address that question that’s always asked when a system’s internal contradictions are brought into sharp relief: What is to be done?
Louis Michael Seidman
Poor Advocate, Good Cause
Would the election of Donald Trump threaten the sanctity of the United States Constitution? We should be so lucky.
As it functions in the 21st century, American constitutionalism is authoritarian, obfuscatory, and reactionary. It is also arbitrary, providing a ready excuse for some people to exercise power over other people without having to offer good arguments for the outcomes they favor.
Consider, for example, the current controversy over gun control. There are strong arguments on both sides of the gun-control issue that ought to be discussed openly and honestly. But what happens when one side invokes the Constitution? No one who wishes to be taken seriously can afford to be seen opposing the Constitution. Therefore, opponents of gun control are forced into a debate about issues that are completely irrelevant to the question at hand, concerning the meaning of an ancient text drafted by people who had no understanding of our modern world. Worse yet, if gun-control advocates lose the argument over what this text means, the issue is effectively taken off the table.
For these reasons, contemporary American constitutionalism is deeply antidemocratic, and deserves to be disrupted. The Constitution is our meta-script, and much of Trump’s appeal derives from the fact that he presents himself as persistently, uncontrollably “off script.” He seems prepared to say and do things the ruling elites of both parties consider outside acceptable boundaries. If Trump’s rise is the harbinger of an emerging public awareness that nothing but the shackles of dead tradition compels us to obey the Constitution, it might foreshadow a healthy revolt against elites who use the empty rhetoric of constitutionalism to stifle honest debate.