At least four eminent legal scholars have recently stirred controversy by arguing that Donald Trumpindicted, among other things, on federal and state charges related to the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection and attempted self coup to illegally overturn the results of the 2020 election and remain in powercould be disqualified from the presidential office again under Section 3 of the post-Civil War 14th Amendment to the Constitution. The amendment bars people from holding federal or state offices if they swore an oath to support the Constitution but then engaged in insurrection or rebellion against that framework or gave aid or comfort to the enemies thereof.
The scholars have argued that the provision is self-enforcingthat is, that Trump could be thrown off state ballots for the 2024 election because he engaged in the Jan. 6 insurrection and coup and also gave aid and comfort to other insurrectionists involved in storming the Capitol to attempt to interfere with congressional approval of the 2020 election results, and thus the hallowed legal transfer of government power to a newly elected president.
The four legal scholars include three conservatives and one progressive, the most prominent of which are conservative retired judge Michael Luttig and eminent progressive Harvard law professor Lawrence Tribe. I write in support of the scholars position but from a historical and systemic perspective rather than a legal one.
The scholars argument has raised some eyebrows among many Republican populists and even some Democrats. One of the major arguments against their position is that disqualifying Trump in this way is undemocratic and that for the purposes of political legitimacy, it would be better to just beat Trump at the ballot box in November 2024.
In a free country, one certainly needs to be careful when disqualifying candidates from running for officenote how authoritarian countries (such as Iran and Pakistan) try to disqualify candidates from elections who might give the regime in power a run for its money at the polls or even defeat it.
But a republican (small r) government should have the capability to defend itself against unconstitutional insurrections or rebellions that threaten its very survival. The threat of Donald Trump, who engaged in such behavior and aided and abetted others, taking office again is likely the greatest internal threat to the American republic in the countrys history.
Even the Confederate states during the Civil War, despite their desire to perpetuate the monstrous and heinous institution of slavery, never tried to overthrow or extinguish the American Constitution, as Trump has done; they fought instead to go their own way and create a separate, but ignominious, slaveholding country.
In contrast, from Trumps abominable actions on Jan. 6 and irresponsible rhetoricincluding that he wants to terminate (not just suspend) the Constitution, intends to take retribution and even arrest political opponents, and has claimed that Article II of the Constitution allows him to do anything he pleaseswe can glean that his authoritarian populist (not conservative) first term will likely pale in comparison to the wreckage he will bring to the American republic if he is able to hold the presidency again.
Admittedly, disqualifying a candidate might seem undemocratic to an American public that has been schooled by politicians to revere democracy, but several practical and historical points should be made.
First, we dont have national elections for any federal office in America (even the presidential election is usually determined by a state-by-state Electoral College system), and thus state officials logically have been given primary responsibility for conducting American elections. State officials regularly make decisions, using appropriate due process procedures, on ballot access for candidates to comply with state and federal qualification requirements. Such officials should just be allowed to do their jobs to determine whether Trump is eligible to be on the ballot, given the ample evidence put forth by the congressional Jan. 6 committee and findings in court cases related to Jan. 6 that Trump ran afoul of the insurrection provision.
It may be more of a judgment call for these state officials than just determining whether Trump is 35 years old and a natural born citizen, which are other requirements to hold the presidency, but assessing candidate qualifications for ballot access is in their job descriptions and they should be allowed to do it. (And if Trump is not now disqualified, gets elected again in 2024, and then runs as an incumbent yet again in 2028again essentially refusing to leave office regardless of the outcomethese same state officials will need to make a more clear-cut decision to disqualify him under the two-time presidential election limit of the 22nd Amendment.)
The modern Republican Party has always advocated for states rights and concomitantly that the federal courts should exhibit judicial restraint; this process comports nicely with those principles. However, the author is not naïve enough to think that an issue as important as this one will not eventually make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. But to get there, it should go through these state processes and courts first.
More important, although just letting Trump run and again rolling the dice about whether he will hold office might be more democratic, the historical newsflash is that the Constitutions framers were suspicious of democracy. The tripartite American national government was never set up to be as efficient as the British (or any other) parliamentary system; its main purpose was to prevent tyrannyof an overweening executive or of a permanent majority faction.
The framers admired the Roman Republic rather than the direct democracy of ancient Greece. Thus, in their unusual written Constitution, they created many checks and balances to contain tyranny by an aggrandizing individual or any permanent majority group: for example, a bicameral Congress; an independent executive and judiciary to act primarily as a check on what they thought would be the dominant legislative branch; a federalist structure that would retain powerful state governments, and a Bill of Rights that would ensure that a tyrannical executive or majoritarian faction could not crush the individual rights of minority interests or populations.
Continuing in that spirit, Section 3 of the 14th Amendment can be seen, in the wake of the massive Civil War, as another important check to shore up the defenses of republican government from unconstitutional attempts to subvert it through unconstitutional means.
And tyranny is knocking at the American door. The potent combination of the rise of the imperial presidencyhaving usurped power from the other branches of government and the states for more than a century and distorted the framers vision of a more equal division of power vertically and horizontally throughout governmentand an authoritarian 2024 candidate who has already tried to lead, aid and abet an insurrection and coup against the American Constitution requires the republic to invoke Section 3 of the 14th Amendment as the only last-ditch failsafe defense against the very real potential for the demagogic and autocratic demise of a republic that has lasted 235 years.