January 3, 2024 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Democracy isn’t a hostage crisis
We have a choice.
Donald Trump’s campaign said yesterday that it planned to appeal a decision by Maine’s top election official to remove the former president from that state’s Republican presidential primary ballot.
Secretary of State Shenna Bellows, a Democrat, had said that Trump is “constitutionally barred from appearing on the state’s primary ballot under Section 3 of the 14th Amendment,” according to NBC News.
Trump’s lawyers said in their court filing, however, “that Section 3 does not apply to the former president and that Bellows … has no authority to enforce it anyway,” the report said. “They also say she should have recused herself, arguing she is too partisan to weigh the case fairly.”
This development is not getting enough attention. All by itself, it undercuts respectable opinion in the debate surrounding news of Trump’s disqualification in Maine (as well as in Colorado). That debate is about whether those decisions (and similar decisions in the future) are antidemocratic. Among respectable people, the consensus is that it is. This appeal by the Trump campaign proves otherwise, though.
What they are really saying is that they fear the outcome of provoking people who can’t be reasoned with. They are afraid of what might happen when democratic politics reacts to antidemocratic politics. They are afraid of rightwing violence and the threat of it.
An elected state official made a decision based on statute and material circumstances. An interested party objected, appealing to a higher authority. That authority (a court of law) may or may not decide. It depends. But what’s certain is that this legal process is inherently democratic. If it were antidemocratic, there would be no appeal. Indeed, Trump would have no right to an appeal. He does. So it is.
That this legal process is inherently democratic should be blindingly obvious to respectable people (ie, the pundit corps) who expressed their concerns about the state of democracy in America in the wake of decisions made in Maine and Colorado to disqualify Donald Trump.
The question, for me, is why isn’t it blindingly obvious? Why are respectable members of the pundit corps not seeing the plain truth? I think the answer can be found in human psychology. Fear is why.
As I argued yesterday, if this debate were really about democracy, we wouldn’t be having this debate. Donald Trump really did attempt a paramilitary takeover of the US government. The US Constitution really does bar insurrectionists from holding office. What we’re seeing is democratic politics reacting to antidemocratic politics. That’s as it should be – a republican norm so normal as to be uncontroversial.
Of course, it is controversial. Trump and the Republicans (most of them, anyway) won’t accept the outcome of the 2020 election. They almost certainly won’t accept the outcome of the next one if Joe Biden wins (and he probably will). They stand against the facts, the law, the Constitution and reason itself. They can’t be reasoned with, and the result of that has been soaring levels of rightwing violence that may be why Trump continues to be the leading Republican candidate.
That’s scary, but what’s more, that’s a situation in which you don’t bother trying to reason with the people who can’t be reasoned with. There’s no point in it. It might even backfire, make things worse. So, instead, you spend your time trying to reason with people who can be reasoned with, in this case, people who look at the facts, the law and the Constitution, and come to reasonable conclusions about whether the man who led a failed coup d’etat should be disqualified from office.
In a very real sense, these respectable members of the pundit corps who have been saying that they are worried about the state of democracy in America are really saying that they fear the outcome of provoking people who can’t be reasoned with. They are afraid of what might happen when democratic politics reacts to antidemocratic politics. They are afraid of rightwing violence and the threat of it.
We should be afraid. Fear is reasonable. As Vox’s Zack Beauchamp reported yesterday, “never before has it been more important for Republican officials to stand up for the integrity of the American electoral system. But they haven’t faced this level of threat in their political lives — in fact, no currently living elected official has.”
But while fear is reasonable, appeasement isn’t. In trying to avoid provoking people who can’t be reasoned with, you end up accepting their position, in this case, a position that should be unacceptable in a democracy – that the loser of a presidential election doesn’t have to accept the outcome. Indeed, he’s free to overthrow the government.
To those who fear provoking people who can’t be reasoned with, it may seem like there’s no other choice. If they aren’t appeased, they’ll act violently. If they are, maybe they won’t. But as Zack Beauchamp documented in his reporting Tuesday, that’s not how it works.
The more they act on their violent impulses, the more they act on them. Trump has not yet been held accountable for the J6 insurrection (aside from being impeached, that is). A consequence of that has been soaring rates of rightwing violence, to the point where Republican members of the US Congress are now afraid to step out of line.
There is a choice, it’s just a hard one – standing up for democratic politics, living with the consequences, even if they’re violent or deadly, and demanding equal and just accountability in all such cases. Alas, for some respectable people, it’s easier to pretend that there’s no choice.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.