[Column] Dodging the bullet of Donald Trump

Posted on : 2024-01-15 18:14 KST Modified on : 2024-01-22 11:07 KST
Former US President Donald Trump campaigns in Newton, Iowa, on Jan. 6. (AFP/Yonhap)
Former US President Donald Trump campaigns in Newton, Iowa, on Jan. 6. (AFP/Yonhap)

By John Feffer, author and co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies

Donald Trump is way ahead of all Republican challengers on the eve of the first primaries of the US presidential election. In polls of Iowans ahead of the caucuses, he has a 35-point lead over the next most popular candidate. He has a nearly 50-point lead over the rest of the Republicans in national polls of Republican voters. 

Against Joe Biden, Trump is running neck and neck. Because of the nature of the Electoral College, Trump would probably win if the election were to take place today because he would capture the key swing states like Wisconsin, Arizona and Pennsylvania. It is a terrible irony of US politics that the popular vote is meaningless — Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in 2016 but lost to Trump in the Electoral College — which means that the choices of voters in overwhelmingly Democratic or Republican states don’t determine the outcome of the election.

It is very likely that Joe Biden will be the Democratic Party nominee. He should be more popular than he is, given his legislative record and the generally positive state of the US economy. But several years of demonization by the Republican Party and media outlets like Fox News have fixed in many voters’ minds the image of an elderly, frail, out-of-touch president. 

Still, Biden remains popular among Democrats. In head-to-head match-ups with Trump, other potential Democratic nominees like Vice President Kamala Harris don’t do any better in hypothetical match-ups against Trump. 

There are also no third-party candidates with sufficient popularity to defeat Trump. If anything, a third-party candidate like academic Cornel West would likely help Trump by taking votes away from Biden. 

It looks like the only thing that can prevent Donald Trump from winning in November is the court system. 

I wrote a previous column about the multiple criminal charges that Trump faces. If the ex-president is convicted of aiding an insurrection or subverting the 2020 election, perhaps a sizeable number of Republicans and independent voters will abandon the candidate. Trump is therefore doing everything he can to slow down these judicial proceedings so that no decisions are made before the elections in November.

However, a couple of states have already decided that Trump should not be on the Republican primary ballot. According to the “insurrection clause” of the US Constitution — Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, which was added immediately after the US Civil War — anyone who “engaged in insurrection or rebellion” is ineligible for public office. 

Colorado, for instance, ruled that Trump’s support of the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the US Capitol bars him from running for office. Maine followed with a similar decision.

Other states have yet to rule on this issue while several others have already decided to put Trump on the ballot. But the Colorado determination has already been appealed. So, everyone is now waiting for the US Supreme Court to weigh in. The Supreme Court, with three conservative justices appointed by Trump himself, is likely to rule in his favor by refusing to label him an insurrectionist.

The insurrection clause was designed to prevent the leaders of the Confederacy from holding office. It didn’t really work as intended, largely because Congress subsequently amnestied most Confederates in 1872. In fact, 63 Confederate veterans served as US senators. Ironically, the last such senator, Charles Thomas, was a senator from none other than Colorado. 

If Trump wins this year, he has promised to do something similar: amnesty everyone who participated in the Jan. 6 insurrection. 

Trump is also arguing that he himself deserves amnesty. He and his lawyers claim that he enjoys immunity from prosecution for any actions he took while president. At a federal appeals court hearing in January, Trump’s lawyers made the astounding claim that the ex-president would be immune from prosecution for any and all crimes — including the assassination of a political rival — unless he were impeached and convicted by Congress for that offense. Since Trump was impeached twice but not convicted of any crime, he would by that definition enjoy absolute immunity. 

It’s not likely that judges will agree with this particular argument. After all, by this reasoning Donald Trump would effectively be a king. America fought a war against England for the right to live without a king. Even conservative judges would hesitate to treat Trump like royalty.

This matter, too, might end up in front of the Supreme Court. But the justices might not make a determination until after the election. At that point, if Trump wins, he could pardon himself and force the Justice Department to drop its charges against him. 

The question of immunity should be moot. The Constitution is clear about barring insurrectionists. Congress conducted a thorough investigation of the events of January 6 and concluded that Trump engaged in insurrection. So far, the participants in that attempted uprising have not been amnestied. Colorado’s decision should therefore stand. 

Would preventing Trump from running in the election provoke a violent response by his supporters? Perhaps, but judgments are either constitutional or non-constitutional. They are not judged according to their effects.

It would be more satisfying, of course, to defeat Donald Trump in an election. It would mean a lot if American voters overwhelmingly decided that Trump was unfit for office and, moreover, a threat to US democracy. 

Unfortunately, the commitment of Americans to democratic values is currently quite tenuous. According to a recent Gallup poll, American satisfaction with democracy is at a record low. A Mood of the Nation poll from 2022 concludes that young people have considerably less faith in democracy than their elders: “62 percent of Baby Boomers, 47 percent of Generation X, 37 percent of Millennials and only 27 percent of Generation Z strongly agree that democracy is the best form of government.”

These results suggest that defeating Trump — either at the polls or through the judicial process — will not save democracy. As with COVID, Americans have to inoculate themselves over and over against would-be dictators like Trump. Unfortunately, as with COVID, many Americans just don’t think the threat is real.

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