COLUMN — Our divisions have resulted in a constitutional crisis

Published 12:45 pm Thursday, January 14, 2021

The orderly transfer of presidential authority failed to materialize this year.

The political divisions in this country have devolved into a constitutional crisis. The head of the executive branch of the federal government fomented a mob of followers to level a violent assault against the legislative branch while it was attempting to validate the election of his successor.

It is almost unbelievable that an American political institution could come under direct, physical assault by the followers of another branch of government. And yet in 1787, leading American statesmen anticipated this possibility, and they constitutionalized legal and political mechanisms necessary for us to maintain liberty, order and justice — the ultimate ends of our civil society. At this point, it is more imperative than ever that we turn to the Constitution to preserve, revive and ultimately refine our government to better achieve those ends.

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At least two things must happen. The states or Congress must take steps to remove all reasonable doubt that future elections are free from fraud, even though no fraud has been proven. President Donald Trump must be impeached, removed and forever disqualified from holding any office of honor, trust or profit under the United States.

As far as I am aware, no election fraud has been proven. But the mere perception of it will continue to provide justification for violent mobs, and so it is important for the state and federal governments to further confront and address this perception to restore faith in the election process. Surveys from Politico and others indicate as many as 70% of Republicans do not believe the 2020 election was free and fair.

A system of self-government cannot continue successfully under this cloud of doubt. Many argue that governors and administrators violated Article I, Sect. 4 of the Constitution by unilaterally loosening election laws just prior to Election Day, Nov. 3, even though no court has made that determination. They point out there are hundreds of sworn affidavits alleging various forms of illegal “ballot stuffing,” even though the courts generally have dismissed those cases for lack of standing. Further, they point out that an electronic forensic report determined that the Dominion Voting System “is intentionally and purposefully designed with inherent errors to create systemic fraud,” even though audits generally have confirmed the election results where those machines were used. Still, the perception of a stolen election persists, and if that perception continues, then the supposed moral justification for leveling these attacks will remain intact. Perhaps the states or Congress could rely on Article I, Sect. 4 to alter the “time, place and manner” of holding elections in ways that keep elections free and fair while simultaneously addressing these concerns. The key is to find commonly accepted, neutral procedures by which to hold future elections.

Next, Trump should be removed and disqualified from future office. His “Save America” speech on the morning of Jan. 6 included rhetoric implicitly urging a halt to constitutional proceedings. This demonstrated both a failure to uphold his oath to take care the laws be faithfully executed and a failure to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution.

Article II is structured to indicate that it is a failure of duty — not necessarily a violation of the law — that is the core reason for Congress to exert its authority to remove the president. Also, it has become apparent that Trump is a demagogue, the exact type of character the founders sought to prevent from securing the chief executive office. These leaders stir emotions to hold and expand their own powers, often regardless of the law.

As scholars such as Jeffrey Tulis have noted, soft demagogues promulgate rhetorical flattery, complaisance and sycophantic praises of loyal followers. “You’re stronger, you’re smarter (than the weak Republicans),” Trump said Jan. 6. Hard demagogues, by contrast, employ popular divisions to secure their constituency. They appeal to morality, hope, fear and envy. “They rigged it like they’ve never rigged an election before,” he claimed that morning. “And we fight. We fight like Hell, and if you don’t fight like Hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” Trump appears to be both types. It is true Trump fell short of directly urging the crowd to employ violence — indeed, in that speech he also said he expected them to “peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard” while marching on the Capitol — but his rhetoric was enough to incite them to action.

An assault on constitutional procedure is an assault on the Constitution itself. Neutral, generally agreed upon procedures are needed for future elections. Demagogues who violate the Constitution must be expelled from government. It will only get worse if nothing is done.

Above all else, a firm adherence to the law of the land will help to secure liberty, order, and justice for ourselves and future generations.

Angus McClellan is a resident of Meherrin. He can be reached at