When the former possessor of maximal power in our government calls for the “termination” of key passages of its founding charter, that is more than just news: It’s a full-on assault on American self-governance that should be front and center in public discourse for a good long time. Yet sensibilities have been so deadened within the agenda-setting precincts of power and punditry that former President Donald Trump’s demand to pull the plug on the constitutional order so that he can continue treating the White House as a casino property barely rippled through the news cycle this past weekend. The New York Times granted it no serious play, and it got only limited attention in the opinion sections of other national newspapers. What’s more, the figureheads atop the party Trump leads—which, awkwardly for all concerned, is branded in its very name as a formation of frontline defenders of the American republic—responded mostly with a prolonged and only recently interrupted silence.
The whole grim episode recalled the mostly blasé coverage of Trump’s election-denying mania in the days leading up to the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol. Back then, it behooves us to recall, Washington Post reporters quoted an (of course) unnamed GOP official asking “What is the harm of humoring him for this little bit of time? . . . .It’s not like he’s plotting now to prevent Joe Biden from taking power on Jan. 20. He’s tweeting about filing some lawsuits, those lawsuits will fail, then he’ll tweet some more about how the election was stolen, then he’ll leave.”
That quote should be emblazoned as a grade-A specimen of insider folly on the walls of newsrooms and journalism schools that profess to take seriously the tacit mandate in the press’s designation as “the fourth estate”—i.e., the social institution tasked with ensuring democracy and public accountability actually function as something more than airless abstractions. Instead, it appears that our organs of public debate are already making the same howling mistake, not even two years after a Trump-led coup effort nearly upended the transfer of power in the wake of a free and fair election.
The occasion for Trump’s resurgent coup plotting, scarcely any commentator has bothered to note, was Elon Musk’s much-hyped release of “the Twitter files”—a collection of intra-company documents showing the discussions among Twitter higher-ups that led to the ban of a New York Post story on the platform about the contents of Hunter Biden’s laptop. In Trump-ese, this was translated into “MASSIVE, WIDESPREAD FRAUD & DECEPTION” among tech and “Democrat Party” elites, on a scale that overrides “all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution.”
In reality, Musk’s late-Friday document-dump merely showed the process of content moderation playing out in Twitter’s bureaucratic chain of command. The process was presumably not all that different from deliberations at Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, reliable Murdoch-owned organs of right-wing resentment, which passed on the story due to thin-looking sourcing and confirmation. The Post story was rushed into this all-too-eloquent journalistic void under a byline shared by a reporter who didn’t actually know she’d be a named writer on the piece until it was in print, and a recently hired former producer of the Sean Hannity Show who has since gone on to a senior editorial position at Breitbart News. It was, in short, a desperate ploy to redirect the news cycle in the final week leading up to the 2020 election with a hastily packaged grab bag of Swift Boat-style innuendos aimed, confusingly, at a sybaritic (and yes, likely corrupt) member of the Democratic nominee’s family. (It was also the clear Plan B option in the GOP’s get-Hunter-Biden-playbook after Trump’s initial mob-style effort to shake down dirt on the Biden scion from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky produced his first impeachment.)
But again to judge by acreage of coverage, the hallucinatory sense of disproportion that Trump is plastering across Truth Social is shared by news organizations across the country. Elon Musk’s second-time-farce impersonation of Daniel Ellsberg has garnered far more media attention, and driven much more public discussion, than the Trumpian war on constitutional governance that’s come in its wake. One would lament that our national press can’t see the forest for the trees—except that it doesn’t seem to be able to find a forest on a map either.
“Beyond its constitutional absurdity and its treasonous resonance, it’s a delusional thought—madness,” says Stanford University History Professor Jack Rakove, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution, of Trump’s outburst. “To make this statement, one has to be delusional. I mean this to be literally true, if you read the handbook of psychiatric disorders. Maybe it’s not unlike Putin. This can be what happens when people have great power, in an environment where no one can effectively check them, because you have false deference to the office in the case of the presidency, then in Putin’s case you have his rivals falling out of windows.”
What’s more, while Trump feels license to attack the Constitution, the Constitution has no clear means of fighting back, Rakove notes. “There’s not much basis in constitutional theory for the idea of a mad king. Trump is psychologically, temperamentally, and intellectually incompetent to hold the office. My position in 2017 was that Republicans could get everything they wanted if they invoked the 25th Amendment”—which allows for the removal of a psychologically or physically unfit president from office. “[Former Secretary of State Rex] Tillerson said Trump was a moron, [Former Defense Secretary James] Mattis said he was reading at a sixth-grade level. He is a mad king. So you would have said, go with the 25th Amendment. But the most serious discussion of that came after January 6. On my watch, it would have happened well before that.”
Instead, the Trump madness festered on, and became the de facto operating manual for the Republican Party. This latest iteration poses a particularly delicate constitutional quandary should Trump win re-election in 2024. “I wonder how Trump could even take the oath of office required of the President given his statement,” says Saul Cornell, Paul and Dinae Guenther Chair in American History at Fordham University. “One also wonders how anyone in the so- called Freedom Caucus could continue to support him after his comments about the Constitution. Does freedom now include the freedom to violate the Constitution with impunity?” The oath of office indeed calls for its swearant to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States,” and a stated declaration to oversee the “termination” of that document flies in the face of that mandate in a way that’s hard for even party apparatchiks and Beltway journalists to overlook.
Indeed, Rakove observes, “A terrible joke was played on the American people on January 20, 2017, when Trump took the oath of office, because he didn’t understand what he was agreeing to.” But Rakove also notes that the structural incentives adopted by individual GOP lawmakers have, over time, conspired to create the zone of impunity that Trump continues expanding to his own benefit. “For anyone who sets out to explain political behavior today, the desire for re-election is the independent variable that shows up in multiple regressions,” says Rakove. And for Republican incumbents in particular, “their great fear is being primaried”; hence their reflexive fealty to any threatened Trump-led insurgency.
The only problem, Rakove explains, is that this M.O. is at cross purposes with the Constitution’s vision of how the legislative branch should operate: “James Madison assumed most members of Congress would be one-termers,” he says—and Madison recommended that each session of the federal legislature would promote joint deliberation over the ambitions of individual lawmakers. “Madison would have assumed that every legislature would be its own learning session; you’d have newcomers coming from different parts of the country. They’d meet for two or three sessions, and each legislature would represent its own learning cycle. It’s a very different model of what the norms are; if the dominant vision is being re-elected, you get none of that.”
Or rather, you get lawmakers learning precisely the wrong sort of lessons for the wrong sorts of reasons. And as Trump began to feel some muffled blowback from his weekend efforts to turn the wayward travels of Hunter Biden’s laptop into a twenty-first century Reichstag fire, he again took to Truth Social to provide marching orders to the party faithful and the reliably supine GOP caucus in Washington. In mounting registers of upper-case delusion, he denied the language of his earlier self-drafted post, claiming “The Fake News is actually trying to convince the American People that I said I wanted to ‘terminate’ the Constitution. This is simply more DISINFORMATION & LIES, just like RUSSIA, RUSSIA, RUSSIA, and all of their other HOAXES & SCAMS.” After detouring briefly back into the great fantasia sanctioned by the “Twitter files,” Trump then continued the baseless case for his coronation: “steps must be immediately taken to RIGHT THE WRONG. Only FOOLS would disagree with that and accept STOLEN ELECTIONS. MAGA!” The Capitol’s best known rightwing trade publication The Hill obliged this clarification-that-wasn’t with a delusive headline all its own: “Trump insists he doesn’t want to ‘terminate’ the Constitution”—as though rescinding a Congress-certified election and reversing its outcome per the spittle-flecked ravings of a mad king could be entirely within the bounds of Madisonian deliberation because he said so. Your move, Freedom Caucus.