If you pushed all your chips in on the notion that Donald Trump’s presidency represents an existential challenge to the Republic, America’s persistent stability must be irritating. Rather than confront this conundrum, gamblers like New York Times opinion writer Charles Blow have discovered a novel way to get around American resilience: pretend it doesn’t exist.
“America, as we knew it, is lost,” Blow opens his latest column. “[I]t is certainly true now that Donald Trump has tested our institutions and our constitutions—both government and personal—and found them all wanting, found them all weak, found them all vulnerable to the ravaging.”
Even a sympathetic reader with a visceral distaste for Donald Trump’s comportment and conduct, both in and out of government, would have a difficult time supporting such a claim.
The American judiciary hasn’t buckled before Trump. It has repeatedly forced him to tailor his populist ambitions to correspond with the confines of executive power codified in law and in the Constitution. If anything, Trump’s populist impulses have repeatedly dashed themselves against the rocks of American institutions, humiliating the administration in the process.
The voters haven’t been sidelined by Trump. They turned out in record numbers for a midterm election to deliver a powerful rebuke of his presidency, demonstrating that the public has not become complacent even amid strong and sustained economic growth.
Even the Congress hasn’t caved to Trump, although it has had some pretty bleak moments. Notable among them was its failure to roll back the president’s reckless assumption of emergency powers to build his border wall despite a substantial number of Republican defections. But the supine Congress is a problem that predates Trump, and it’s one that did not trouble Blow until this administration. Still, the legislature is not entirely supplicative. Even the Republican-dominated 115th Congress routinely dismissed, dodged, or checked the president’s worst impulses. And as Robert Mueller’s report demonstrated, Trump’s own inner circle routinely defied him, thwarting his efforts to subvert the independent investigation into his 2016 campaign.
Blow cites William Barr’s Wednesday testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee as an example of institutional failure, presumably because he believes, like Nancy Pelosi, that Barr misled the committee under oath. If the House Speaker truly believes that the attorney general committed a “crime,” her chamber is free to pursue impeachment, contempt, or even to recommend perjury charges. If the Democratic House caucus declines to pursue these remedies, it’s not because they’ve been handcuffed by a tyrannical president.
Blow adds that “Trump elevated the coarsest constituencies of the party,” including racists and xenophobes, to prominence within the GOP. I’m inclined to agree that Trump’s reckless rhetoric gave the right’s most toxic elements the impression that their views were less marginal than they are, but the conduct of Trump’s administration should disabuse them of this notion. Just this week, the four members of the white supremacist group responsible for engaging in much of the violence in Charlottesville pleaded guilty to federal conspiracy charges. The prosecution and conviction rate for hate crimes by the U.S. Justice Department remains consistent with rates predating the Trump administration, and the DOJ and National Institute for Justice have committed to increased funding for and dedicated research on hate crimes.
Blow insists that America is “too dependent on custom” to thwart the will of a determined demagogue. “America naïvely believed that the presidency was for honorable men,” he wrote, “that the president of us would always in some form be the best of us.” Anyone who believed that is a civic illiterate. The Founders didn’t believe that. Constitutional checks on presidential excesses, though strained by partisan politics and the willingness of legislators to sacrifice influence in pursuit of fame, have not been dissolved or circumvented.
Blow cites the difficulty of removing this president from office by means of impeachment as an example of American administrative decay. But subverting the will of the voters in a duly constituted election is supposed to be an extraordinary remedy for extraordinary conduct. He does not make the case that Trump’s presidency deserves to be euthanized. Perhaps he assumes his audience doesn’t need convincing. But if he were to peruse the polling on the matter, Blow would find that the public is unpersuaded that the results of the 2016 election should be nullified.
Finally, we learn why Blow has so misrepresented the state of American affairs. His intention is to argue against Democratic prudence. Caution, he warns, is “antithetical to excitement,” and Democrats shouldn’t risk the 2020 election on a candidate they think is likely to win. They should risk it, instead, on a candidate who would be transformative in office. “[T]he best time to truly rebuild a thing is when it has been destroyed,” he declares. Blow’s morose assessment of America’s political landscape isn’t empirical but utilitarian. The goal is to convince his fellow progressives to take a chance on a radical, not restorative, antidote to Trump.
Donald Trump does represent a unique challenge to what the late Charles Krauthammer deemed the “guardrails of our democracy.” And though we are not out of the woods yet, American institutions are holding in part because they are so resistant to the kind of radical change Blow advocates, albeit in a subversive column ostensibly lamenting radical change. Blow’s purpose here is not to appraise the state of the Union, but to convince voters that the American “slate is clear” and that which was worth preserving is already beyond repair. You have to give him the credit he’s denied his fellow citizens: He knows what his audience wants to hear.