What does it mean to be against the Constitution? American history has no precise analogy to the early-20th-century fascists who ran against the nascent democracies of the inter-war years. Indeed, if there is an American who unequivocally styled himself an anti-constitutionalist, it would be the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who declared the document that enshrined slavery a “covenant with death” and an “agreement with hell.” Lacking a long tradition of anti-constitutional politics, Americans might be forgiven for thinking it was not a real possibility.
But in the United States, there is a budding political movement that sets itself against a basic constitutional principle. This movement has a highly salient national leader, a coterie of intellectuals, and a deep reservoir of latent support, waiting to be tapped. Even if its current avatar flames out, it will endure—pressing its core objection to a fundamental tenet of the Constitution: democracy.
The Constitution, from its very inception, has envisaged an elected, representative government, one that is subject to removal at the polls. A democratic architecture arcs through most of its first two articles. Various amendments extend the franchise across race, gender, wealth, and age boundaries. In practice, moreover, the United States has hewed to the Constitution’s timetable for democratic elections for more than two centuries. No other country can say as much.
This is hardly to say that our democracy today—with its massive and racially lopsided disenfranchisements, exorbitant spending, and two-party duopoly—is anywhere near ideal. It is rather that the aspiration of democracy, if realized with lapses and blind spots, is laced into the Constitution’s bones.
Anti-Constitution politics is an opposition to democracy as both practice and ideal. This is different from being against effective campaign-finance reform or for spurious voter-fraud measures. Elite dominance of national politics long precedes PACs and dark money. And the poor and people of color have been excluded from polling stations as long as ballots have been in the United States. However pernicious, these are retail assaults on constitutional democracy—all serious, but nonfatal to the enterprise as a whole. A full-scale version of the same attack requires more. If the movement accepts elections, it does so only if they serve as rituals to sanctify what is already known to be the true voice of the people.
The Trump White House is, obviously, the polluting, pullulating engine of contemporary anti-constitutional postures. I speak not here of its casual disregard for ethics laws and rules, its contempt for the Equal Protection Clause, or the outright hostility to the speech rights of those who won’t stand for the national anthem. Rather, the most revealing display of the Trump doctrine, to my mind, was the candidate’s never-materialized threat to reject the election results if Clinton won. It was a refrain filled with disdain not just for the Democratic candidate but for the system of democratic choice.