Trump, Insurrectionist or Idiot?

A group of highly credentialed conservative lawyers is publicly arguing that Donald Trump is constitutionally disqualified from running for the presidency ever again, on the grounds of his “participation in the attempted overthrow of the 2020 presidential election.” Meanwhile, Alan Dershowitz, the most distinguished liberal lawyer of the past forty years, has spent the past seven of those years so deep in the tank for Trump that one can hardly explain it other than by presuming that he knows Trump has the photos.

To the conservatives arguing for constitutional disqualification, I can only say that much of the case for Trump as leader of an insurrection depends on how one parses that idea about “the attempted overthrow of the 2020 presidential election.” After all, can a man who throws the American flag into his fireplace because he honestly believes it is a log be condemned as a flag burner? Likewise, to attempt to overthrow a political outcome presumes, I suspect, that one believes the outcome in question is legitimate, such that resisting or overturning it would truly constitute an “overthrow.” Thus, everything in that constitutional disqualification claim hinges on whether one accepts the implied premise that Trump believed the election was lost, believed Biden had been the legitimate victor, and thus believed that a “march” on the Capitol would constitute a direct defiance of, or even an attempt to overthrow, the legitimate election result. I am not convinced that Trump genuinely believed any of those things. 

In fact, I am skeptical enough of Trump’s mental faculties and sense of reality that I sincerely believe it possible that he had completely persuaded himself — or rather the brain-stem-level ego that he passes off as a “self” — that the election had been stolen, for the simple reason that his defeat was impossible, since he is Donald Trump, and thus by definition a winner who is universally loved and venerated by all but the evil few who hate America.

As for the “insurrectionists” who gathered at the Capitol on January 6th, 2021, including most of the individuals who actually entered the building and caused damage, I believe they, along with millions of other Americans, sincerely believed, in their heart of hearts, that the election had been stolen by a nefarious conspiracy led by a deep state cabal, and that they were protesting in a last-ditch effort to save their country from the boldest and most criminal act of political subversion in its history. Why did so many millions of otherwise normal human beings believe such a thing, without a shred of evidence? For two reasons: First, their hearts wanted to believe it; and second, Donald Trump, on election night, declared it to be true on live television.  (A declaration subsequently backed up and buttressed by the profiteering cynicism of the true insurrectionists here, namely the fake conservative pundits who did not believe Trump’s claims but saw the dollar signs attached to pretending they did.)

That first reason is the one operative in the soul of everyone who ever loses anything, and certainly an election invested with so much apparent significance for the future of one’s country. Indeed, who doesn’t have a momentary twinge, upon any close election loss, any close playoff game loss, or any close decision of any kind that does not go in one’s favor, of feeling, “There is something about this result that doesn’t feel right, that doesn’t seem possible, that looks unfair”? Thus, late on election night in November 2020, tens of millions of Trump voters, seeing his “lead” in early counting apparently dwindling in the wee hours, began to feel that natural, rationalizing twinge of doubt aimed at the heavens. “My Election God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

At this moment of peak hopeless hope, unfortunately, the less natural second reason was thrust upon those millions, just when they were most primed to accept it or least inclined to submit it to rational scrutiny. For Trump himself, the sitting President of the United States, approached the microphones in the midst of this close and emotionally charged election count, and gave voice, and hence the aura of inside knowledge from the highest source, to their weakest needs and rationalizations, telling them, in effect, “It’s just like I predicted, they are stealing this from us in the middle of the night!” That Trump was speaking without any knowledge whatsoever, inside or otherwise, but rather only from a combination of dangerously inflated vanity and ridiculously deflated intellect, is a fact no one can doubt in hindsight. But in the heat of the moment, as that moment was experienced by his supporters who had every emotional incentive to accept his word at face value, his statement was all the proof that was needed. Their worst suspicions verified by the sheer unblinking chutzpah of Trump’s blustering declaration, there was never any question in their minds of “overthrowing” anything. Rather, as they saw it, they were the ones defending an election victory against illegitimate overthrow. It was nonsense and a falsehood, but not necessarily a lie, even from Trump, since it is highly likely that he believed, truly believed, that he could not have lost. Even his later, more overtly sinister incitement of his followers against his own vice president, disgusting as it was, probably seemed justifiable to Trump himself, relying as he was on the encouragement and legal wisdom of so many advisors and self-serving Iagos of his ilk, from the greed- or senility-driven Rudy Giuliani to all the “conservative media” rabble-rousers for profit from whom Trump learned all his own talking points.

Now, it must be added that the fact that he truly believed such a thing under those conditions, let alone acted on it, is all the evidence anyone, looking back in the cool light of distance, ought to require in order to conclude that there is no way such a man is qualified to be president, or has any business being regarded as a legitimate candidate by any semi-reasonable political party. The fact that he is yet again considered the frontrunner for the Republican Party nomination, after all this mayhem, is only further argument for the side that said the party leadership should have denied him the nomination in the first place, back in 2016. He is not fit, intellectually or psychologically, to be a political leader, and this obvious truth, combined with what we have all learned about his remarkable ability to build and sustain a genuine and giant cult of true believers that will follow him right off as many cliffs as he demands of them, makes it the height of irresponsibility for anyone to continue making excuses for his candidacy and insisting that the Republican Party has a moral duty to “obey the will of primary voters.” No, it doesn’t, and this is why the U.S. Constitution demands no such deference to primary voters, who were not part of the political process at all, as conceived, until the overgrown machinery of partisan establishmentarianism, with its phony “two-party system” ruse, began its slow suffocation of the American form of government in the early 1900s. 

In short, the conservatives arguing for Trump’s disqualification on constitutional grounds related to insurrection and “overthrow,” are on very shaky ground. But the reason they are on such shaky ground is largely that their case depends on deliberately overlooking the fact that Donald Trump is not a diabolical schemer or a fascist subversive in reality TV entertainer’s clothing. He is, rather, a garden variety megalomaniacal sociopath, who, like many such people, is able to sweep otherwise decent, though perhaps emotionally susceptible, human beings up in his bluster by simply blowing with such apparent conviction. In this case, Trump’s conviction is nothing more than “Trump wins!” cleverly reframed as “America wins!” But this has been enough to sway a lot of people feeling desperate and in need of salvation to fall for his special brand of ignorance.

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