You can read the original column here: Trump is a Stability Test for America
The good news (for a Republican #NeverTrumper like me) is that new polls show Hillary Clintontrouncing Donald Trump. The bad news is that Trump, barring yet more extraordinary events, will be on the November ballot at all. The prospect of a man ascending to the White House who encouraged violence, proposed a series of blatantly unconstitutional policies and exhibited a bizarrely erratic temperament raises a question seldom seriously pondered: Is our political-constitutional system stable, or could a figure like Trump topple it?
It has long seemed highly stable. For the preservation of liberty, the framers designed a system of checks and balances to keep the three coequal branches of the federal government in equilibrium. For nearly two-and-a-half centuries, those checks and balances have functioned remarkably well.
The greatest test of the Constitution’s fiber in modern times was Watergate. In 1974, special prosecutor Leon Jaworski issued a subpoena to President Nixon demanding evidence central to the investigation of the break-in at Democratic Party headquarters and the subsequent cover-up. Nixon balked, and the matter rapidly ascended to the Supreme Court.
In United States v. Nixon, the justices unanimously ruled against the president. In a last ditch effort to save his presidency, Nixon might have chosen to resist, insisting that the court’s decision was an invalid trespass on his authority. But even as he defiled the presidency with his petty crimes, Nixon ultimately respected the constitutional order by opting to resign 16 days after the ruling.
More recently, President George W. Bush, in responding to the terror attacks of 9/11, pressed against the outer edges of presidential power, unilaterally undertaking significant actions such as his terrorist surveillance program, the establishment of military tribunals for terrorists and the detention of U.S. citizens without due process. Congress, elements in the executive branch itself, and the Supreme Court — in momentous decisions of Hamdi and Hamdan — pressed back and reined Bush in. Once again, without any resistance from the president.
Ironically, President Obama, Bush’s relentless critic, has continued where his predecessor left off. In one policy arena after the next, he has either not enforced laws on the books or exercised unilateral authority he does not possess. But Obama, exactly like Bush, has not forced a constitutional crisis. When courts have ruled against him, he has respected the process, obeying the judicial branch while appealing its decisions. The worst that can be said of Obama is he has set dangerous precedents that his successors might one day attempt to extend even further.
Trump is just such a potential successor. He might be the president who, intent on carrying out his assumed mandate, chooses to defy Congress and the courts and not back down. Let us consider a wholly conceivable example.
Suppose that following an Orlando-like terrorist attack, in addition to ordering the “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” President Trump also issues an executive decree compelling all Muslims to register with the nearest office of his newly created Islamic Control Bureau. In the ordinary course of such an extraordinary situation, the courts would deem such an order unlawful, a naked violation of the First Amendment. If a president refused to obey the courts, he could be impeached by the House, convicted by the Senate and removed from office.
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But what if President Trump, insisting that his anti-Muslim policies were necessary for national defense, refused to accept the will of Congress, asserted that his legitimate presidential power was being usurped by a “rigged system,” and that impeachment or not, he was staying put?
Who, at this juncture, would actually physically remove Trump from the White House? The only force under the control of Congress is the Capitol Police, consisting of about 2,300 lightly armed officers. The Supreme Court and lower federal courts are even less well equipped to impose their will; the approximately 3,800 deputies of the U.S. Marshals Service who guard them are under the control the Justice Department, not the federal courts.
President Trump, for his part, would have at his disposal, in addition to the Marshals, dozens of federal police agencies and other armed bodies, including the Secret Service, the CIA, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives. If it were purely a contest involving force, any standoff with the executive branch would be a one-sided affair, to say the least. President Trump would be restrained only if the personnel under his control were willing to disobey his illegal commands.
Our democracy has long seemed extraordinarily robust. But the Trump phenomenon — a mass movement centered around a cult of personality attached to a charismatic celebrity — points to its fragility. It is an alarming development in and of itself that Trump has already given us cause to consider the vulnerability of our constitutional order to destabilizing turmoil at the hands of a determined demagogue.