Donald Trump’s constant assault on our democracy, culminating in the siege of the U.S. Capitol by his frothing mob of supporters on January 6, revealed serious flaws in the Constitution. For all their brilliance, the framers could not foresee the betrayal by the 21st-century Republican Party of the democratic ideals embodied in our founding document. The idea that representatives elected to our first branch of government could turn toward autocracy to preserve power was unthinkable to men who had just fought for freedom from a distant monarch. The Founding Fathers saw one corrupt man coming to power, but they did not see the corruption of the legislature as one party jettisons all principles to bring our democracy to the brink of demise.
The second shameless acquittal of Trump by Republican Senators unwilling to apply common sense and decency to abhorrent facts proven beyond any doubt by yet another team of outstanding Democratic House managers demonstrates that the Constitution is only as good as the men and women elected to public office to uphold it. The legacy of Trump to the Republican Party is a road map to autocracy as a means to control the federal government as the minority party. Too many Republicans are willing to abandon democracy and follow Trump in rejection of all that our nation stands for. The formula is obvious when taken in its totality.
Sixty-seven is the number of senators needed to convict an impeached president under the Constitution. It’s an almost impossibly high bar in a Senate not rife with partisanship, but in a Senate divided along rigid party lines it is absolutely unattainable. Such a high number needed for conviction protects when an impeachment is brought by the House for misconduct that doesn’t reach the necessary high crimes and misdemeanors requirement, such as the impeachment of Bill Clinton for lying about a personal indiscretion. However, it also serves to defeat a warranted conviction when the House has impeached on actions that are indeed high crimes and misdemeanors, as in both impeachments of the 45th president.
The Republican members of the Senate acquitted Trump yet again, 57 guilty-43 not guilty, on February 13. A corrupt political party can protect a corrupt president. We have seen a one-term president, with compliant senators of his own party, bring us to this place twice. The conclusion is inescapable; impeachment under the Constitution is rendered useless when a political party wants to render it useless to protect their lawless president. As long as a Department of Justice memo makes it impossible to indict a sitting president, the president is indeed above the law, a critical step down the road to autocracy. By design, amending the Constitution is a long process. It requires the buy-in of the political party that might be disadvantaged by an amendment, therefore it is unlikely. If impeachment is rendered a useless remedy, perhaps it is time to rethink the abovementioned DOJ memo.
In 2016, Trump demonstrated how the presidency can be won by way of the Electoral College, even in the face of a decisive defeat in the popular vote. He attempted a repeat in 2020, only to be thwarted by a united Democratic coalition. It was a victory built on sheer determination. As Trump twisted the arms of Republican state officials to change the vote in states critical to Trump’s Electoral College count, those Republican state officials refused, only to be threatened and tormented by the Trump mob we saw in action on January 6.
Although Trump couldn’t get the Electoral College win in 2020, he showed other Republicans with presidential ambitions how their minority party could still win the presidency — by doing everything possible to snag the slimmest Electoral College win, even as they are crushed in the popular vote. This strategy is another move toward autocracy, as the majority’s vote is sidestepped.
There are Republican Senators hoping to inherit the blind support Trump currently enjoys among Republican voters. With presidential power within their grasp if they court the Trump base, including the worst among them, these Republicans will not hesitate to turn their backs on democracy. The minority through the Electoral College, perhaps the most flawed part of the Constitution, will prevail over the majority to put them in the White House someday. The abolishment or altering of the Electoral College must be done by amendment so, as with the rules impeachment and subsequent conviction, it will stand.
However, within the Constitution we have the means to preserve the democratic ideals critical to our freedom. We have the right to vote. It is a right enshrined for many of us in the Constitution when the process of amending the document was used to move us forward. If 2020 showed us anything good, it is the political strength of the diverse coalition of the majority. Trump’s most desperate igniting of his insurrectionists on January 6 and his subsequent acquittal handed to him by Republican senators fearful of that mob or intent on some day assuming its leadership, must be repudiated at the polls by the majority of Americans. The right to vote will be under constant attack by the Republican Party seeking to disenfranchise groups of Americans who can defeat them in free and fair elections. There is a reason the Trump mob clings to the Confederate flag and shamefully brought that symbol of hate into our capitol for the first time. We must be up for the challenge.
Susan SurfTone is a musician, former FBI agent, and frequent contributor to The Advocate.