Liberal cowardice, Trump and the Constitution: Surrender is not an option

Is the center-left establishment too scared of Trump to stand up for the rule of law? That won't end well

By Mike Lofgren

Contributing Writer

Published January 14, 2024 6:00AM (EST)

Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

I worked as a congressional staff member during the protracted, nerve-wracking run-up to the Iraq invasion in 2003. Readers will recall a time of peak national hubris, with the White House, congressional Republicans and most of the press fairly bawling for war. It was then that I began to understand that Democrats were afraid of Republicans.  

Given how pitifully weak the justifications were for an unprovoked invasion of a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, it was striking how many Democrats were swept along by it, more from conformity than conviction. Even those who opposed it usually advanced tepid, process-driven arguments. Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, no one’s idea of a Squad progressive, was among the few Democrats who denounced the Iraq misadventure in hard-hitting and memorable terms. Why were Democrats pulling their punches?

I was reminded of that historic political timidity by the thesis of a center-left establishment warhorse, New York magazine's Jonathan Chait, that the U.S. government should not enforce the insurrection provision of the 14th Amendment to disqualify Donald Trump as a presidential candidate. Why not? Because Republicans won’t like it.

The author showcases excruciatingly nuanced logic-chopping over whether the violent takeover of the Capitol and attempted overthrow of government on Jan. 6, 2021, really was an insurrection according to his own ethereal definition; whether Trump actually honest-to-God incited it; and gee, what is insurrection, anyway — is it like secession, or different? Chait missed his calling as a medieval scholastic agonizing over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

He insists that those who support democracy and the rule of law face a terrible dilemma: How can we, the wise thinkers, possibly resist authoritarianism without seeming mean and unfair to all those reasonable Republicans we might otherwise win over to Team Democracy? Never mind that the number of them who would definitively abandon Trump is statistically negligible; the ones he cites (Mike Pence, Mitt Romney, Jeff Flake and Liz Cheney) have already abandoned electoral politics, and some of them have received death threats.

If enough of the punditry retreat, their fear could become self-fulfilling. The authoritarian psyche can sense fear and exploit it, a situation that suggests the far-right and center-left in this country are playing out yet another Stockholm syndrome.

It is unnecessary to further deconstruct Chait’s bold counsel of passivity; Brian Beutler has already done an admirable job. What intrigued me, however, is that Beutler states, without saying precisely why he believes it, that Chait's argument is based in fear. I think he is correct, but his assertion needs expansion if we are to grasp the full implications of Chait’s thinking and those who agree with him.

Fear is certainly implicit in the cringing quality of Chait’s entire argument, and strongly suggested by his final paragraph: “It is going to be difficult to convince the American public that throwing a popular candidate off the ballot after it’s too late for his party to course-correct is the definition of democracy. Even if it were to succeed, it would bring the kind of short-term victory we might eventually come to regret.”

Why might we regret it? Why not spell out the reason? I suspect (although I can’t prove) that liberal pundits like Chait — who has a public reputation and a record of political advocacy — are consciously or subconsciously afraid of being identified and physically attacked by Trump supporters, or at a minimum afraid of massive violence in the country should Trump be disqualified. By virtue of being visible Trump opponents, they personally stand exposed to the “retribution” he has explicitly promised.

If Chait’s line of argument is fear-based, as Beutler believes, and if the underlying fear is that Trump’s followers could commit serious violence over disqualification, then why is there any reason to believe they wouldn’t behave in exactly the same way if Trump loses the election in 2024? Trump has already made it clear he won’t accept any result that does not mean victory for him.

And if Trump actually does win the election, why do people like Chait think that they personally, or society at large, will be safer than in a disqualification scenario? Suppose Trump declares martial law (as he has promised, although implausibly claiming it would only be “on day one”) and mass-deputizes tens of thousands of crazed gun nuts to exact the retribution he has offered his following.

The baleful precedent of Jan. 6 and the countless death threats to judges, politicians, election workers and others coming from Trump’s supporters suggest we should assume the possibility of a worst-case scenario. Given that the judge in Trump’s New York fraud trial, Arthur Engoron, received a bomb threat on the morning of the trial's final day, there is every reason to believe that violence is an ever-present danger for as long as Trump remains in elective politics. It’s one more reason, following Chait’s logic, to give in to Trump’s demands.

That said, let’s now assume another scenario, that the likelihood of violence is minimal. In that case, Chait’s thesis centers on his willingness to suspend enforcement of the Constitution as a kind of professional courtesy to Republicans who somehow failed to foresee the possibility of disqualification and didn’t plan an alternative.

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Why do people like Chait appear to operate out of fear in the first place? Is it too hard to adhere to the plain text of the Constitution? Should the document be enforced only when those who face its sanctions agree? If enough of the punditry retreat alongside him, and there are plenty of influential examples, their fear could become self-fulfilling. The authoritarian psyche can sense fear and exploit it, a situation that suggests the far-right and center-left in this country are playing out yet another Stockholm syndrome.

Two decades ago, Jonathan Chait was one of those muscular New Republic liberals who was gung-ho on invading Iraq. When an action is popular, and when Republicans approve it (or stridently demand it, in the case of Iraq), Chait appears to be all-in for forceful solutions. Never mind that we were invading the wrong country.

But whenever politics demands heavy lifting, controversy and potential confrontation to defend the rule of law, not so much.

By Mike Lofgren

Mike Lofgren is a historian and writer, and a former national security staff member for the House and Senate. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller "The Party Is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted."

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Commentary Constitution Democrats Donald Trump Insurrection Clause Jonathan Chait Liberals