Donald Trump’s call for the termination of the Constitution is his most extreme anti-democratic statement yet and seems oblivious to the sentiments of voters who rejected election deniers in the midterm elections.
It may also reflect desperation on the part of the former president to whip up controversy and fury among his core supporters in order to inject some energy into a so-far lackluster 2024 White House bid.
Trump’s comments on his Truth Social network – which should be easy for anyone to condemn – are exposing the familiar moral timidity of top Republicans who won’t disown the former president. But his latest tirade also plays into the arguments of some Republicans now saying that it’s time to move on from Trump’s fixation with the 2020 election.
And while it is far too early to write off his chances in the 2024 GOP nominating contest, Trump’s behavior since announcing his third presidential bid also suggests his never-ending quest to shock and to fire up his base now means going so far right he ends up on the extremist fringe and almost in self-parody. In the short time he’s been a candidate, he’s expressed support for rioters who stormed the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, and dined with a White nationalist Holocaust denier.
Gabriel Sterling, the chief operating officer for Georgia’s Secretary of State Office, chuckled at the incredulity of Trump’s claim about the Constitution when it was described by CNN’s Pam Brown on Saturday.
“It’s ridiculous, it’s insane, to suspend the Constitution. Come on man, seriously?” said Sterling, a Republican who helped oversee Georgia’s election in 2020, when President Joe Biden carried the state. “I think more and more Republicans, Americans are saying, ‘Ok I am good, I am done with this now, I’m going to move on to the next thing.’”
Trump’s rant may be a sign of a stuttering 2024 campaign
The most immediate question raised by Trump’s latest controversy is what it says about a presidential campaign that has been swallowed up by one far-right authoritarian sideshow after another.
Far from barnstorming the nation, making a case on the economy, health care and immigration or outlining a program for the future, Trump has given comfort to zealots and insurrectionists.
He hosted Kanye West at Mar-a-Lago last month, at a time when the rapper now known as Ye is in the middle of a vile streak of antisemitism and praising Adolf Hitler. The far-right Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes was at also at that dinner. Trump claimed he didn’t know who Fuentes was but the former president still hasn’t criticized his ideology. Last week, Trump, in a fundraising video, praised the mob that invaded the Capitol in the worst attack on US democracy in modern times, again promoting violence as an acceptable response to political grievances.
His social media assault on the Constitution appears to be proving the point of the House select committee probing January 6, which has portrayed him as a clear and present danger to American democracy and met on Friday to consider criminal referrals to the Justice Department.
Wyoming GOP Rep. Liz Cheney, vice chair of the committee, tweeted on Sunday: “No honest person can now deny that Trump is an enemy of the Constitution.” Trump’s latest wild social media post could even deepen his legal exposure as the Justice Department seeks evidence of his mindset as it investigates his conduct before the attack on the Capitol.
Trump’s doubling down on authoritarianism also follows a moment when much of the country, at least in crucial swing states, rejected his 2020 election denialism and anti-democratic chaos candidates he picked for the midterms – with a final test on Tuesday in Georgia’s Senate runoff. It appears to make it even more unlikely that the ex-president, even if he wins the Republican nomination, will be the kind of candidate who could win among the broader national electorate. After all, his message failed in two consecutive elections in 2020 and 2022. And even in the wilder reaches of the GOP, which Trump has dominated since 2015, a call to simply trash the Constitution might seem a stretch – and reflect the former president’s increasing distance from reality.
Why Trump’s words are dangerous
One could argue that the most prudent response to Trump’s latest radical rhetoric might be to ignore it and his bid for publicity.
But even if his idea of crushing the Constitution looks far-fetched, his behavior needs to be taken seriously because of its possible future consequences.
That’s because Trump remains an extraordinarily influential force in the Republican Party. His acolytes hold outsized power in the new House majority set to take over in January, which they plan to use as a political weapon to promote his restoration in the White House. GOP leader Kevin McCarthy is appeasing this group in an increasingly troubled campaign for speaker. The California Republican also last week shielded Trump over criticism of the Fuentes dinner, saying that while such a person had no place in the party, Trump had condemned him four times – a false claim.
Furthermore, in an electoral sense, the theory that Republican voters may be willing to move on from Trump – and to find a candidate who may reflect “America First” populism but not dine with antisemites – has not yet been tested. Trump’s claims that the 2020 election was stolen are still broadly accepted among GOP voters – only 24% of whom believe that Biden legitimately won in 2020, according to midterm election exit polls.
And a GOP primary that includes multiple candidates competing with Trump for the presidential nomination could yet again splinter the vote against the former president and allow him to emerge at the top of a mostly winner-take-all delegate race, a vote that would put a prospective authoritarian who has already tried to dismantle the US system of democracy one step from a return to power.
Ignoring or downplaying public evidence of extremism and incitement only allows it to become normalized. There is already proof that the ex-president’s rhetoric can cause violence – after he told his supporters to “fight like hell” to save their country on January 6. And the rhetoric of people like West and Fuentes, with whom Trump has associated, risks normalizing odious forces in society that will grow if they are not challenged. Fuentes, after all, has appeared with Republican lawmakers like Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene – an increasingly influential voice in the House GOP conference.
Years of norm crushing and acceptance of extremists by the twice-impeached former president never convinced the party to purge him or his views. Were it not for principled, conservative Republicans like Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and former Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers, Trump’s election-stealing effort might have worked in 2020.
As they work through an intense lame-duck session of Congress, Republican lawmakers are, for the umpteenth time, going to be asked this week about the tyrannical attitudes of the front-runner for their party’s presidential nod.
One newly elected Republican, Michael Lawler – who picked up a Democratic-held House seat critical to the slim GOP majority – stood up for the Constitution on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday.
“The Constitution is set for a reason, to protect the rights of every American. And so I certainly don’t endorse that language or that sentiment,” Lawler told Jake Tapper. “I think the former president would be well-advised to focus on the future, if he is going to run for president again.”
Republican Rep. Mike Turner of Ohio, who serves on the House Intelligence Committee, said he “vehemently” disagreed with Trump’s statement and said his dinner with West and Fuentes was “atrocious” and that voters would take both incidents into consideration.
But a fellow Ohio Republican, Rep. David Joyce, demonstrated the characteristic reluctance of members of his party to confront an ex-president who remains hugely popular among its grassroots. Regarding the threat to the Constitution, Joyce said on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday, “You know he says a lot of things but that doesn’t mean that it’s ever going to happen,” adding that it was important to separate “fact from fantasy.”
Joyce didn’t directly condemn Trump’s rhetoric and said he would support whomever the Republican Party nominates in 2024. The fact that Republicans are open to a potential president – who would be called upon to swear to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution but who has already called for its termination – speaks volumes about how much the GOP is still in Trump’s shadow.