Where’s Alexander Hamilton when we really need him?
He would take one look at Donald Trump and beseech us to read Federalist Paper 68 — before it’s too late.
He clearly states that the electors of the Electoral College are tasked with ensuring that the presidency shall never fall to an unfit demagogue. The electors are supposed to render independent judgment in the national interest. They’re supposed to be our last line of defense.
Yup, that’s what Hamilton says. Once you prune the 18th-century verbiage, it’s all there:
The electors — people “most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation” — should not rubber-stamp the voters. The electors shall protect the presidency from candidates who have “talents for low intrigue,” candidates who threaten to indulge “the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils.” Electors should “guard against all danger of this sort…with the most provident and judicious attention.” All told, the electors shall ensure “that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.”
Hence the last-ditch quest to foil Trump by somehow convincing 37 red-state electors to reject him when the Electoral College crowd meets on December 19. Various anti-Trump activists and election attorneys, who call themselves Hamilton Electors, say that if 37 can be persuaded to honor the Founders’ original intent, Trump’s EC tally would then be reduced to 269, thus forcing the deadlocked race into the House of Representatives, where the Republican majority could pick someone who’s fit for high office…we’re talking a Hail Mary for the ages here.
In theory, I sympathize. Three prominent academics — in law, history, and political science — were right last week when they warned, “Our Founding Fathers created what we now call the Electoral College to protect our country against the precise danger we now face: a demagogue who has manipulated and bullied voters, exploited fears and now threatens the very foundation of our republic.”
Indeed, they wrote, “we cannot be sure that a President Trump will not manufacture a war or other crisis to forestall his removal from power. The history of dictators destroying republics through war dates back to Athens and Rome. We are on a similar precipice. Our Founders were familiar with that history, and they left us an escape hatch we must use today.”
And besides, Trump isn’t the people’s choice. He’s currently a distant second in the popular vote, trailing Hillary Clinton by 2.53 million. His share of the electorate has fallen again, to 46.3 percent.
All the more reason – at least in theory – for the electors to deliberate as Hamilton intended, because Trump’s ascent is potentially terrifying in ways that few of us are even willing to confront. Dare we imagine how he might respond if ISIS or an ISIS wannabe decided to test him by targeting a Trump property somewhere in the world? Dare we recall what he said on TV last March? (“Somebody hits us within ISIS – you wouldn’t fight back with a nuke?”).
Still, I have mixed feelings about this last-ditch pitch to the electors (who are party loyalists anyway; Republican electors won’t overrule red-state voters). There is merit to the pitch, but my objections are purely pragmatic. If such a campaign were to somehow succeed, Trump’s most vocal supporters (the types who rant on airplanes and in Starbucks) would go bat-crazy. They would say that the system was “rigged” after all, that the election was stolen. It’s fair to say that some would react with violence.
Plus, we’d be thrown into a protracted legal limbo. The National Archives and Records Administration says there is “no Constitutional provision or federal law that requires electors to vote according to the results of the popular vote in their states.” But 29 states have laws that do require their electors to rubber-stamp the popular vote in their states. The courts would have to sort all this out. The cable chatter alone would kill us all.
(And let’s face it, if Hillary Clinton had won the Electoral College, Clinton supporters would be infuriated if Trump activists tried to sway electors at the eleventh hour. Democrats would view it as a right-wing coup.)
Still, I can’t get Hamilton out of my head – and I haven’t even seen the play. Clearly, the guy was trying to tell us something about people like Trump. The electors are supposed to provide the ultimate check and balance: “Nothing (is) more to be desired than that every practicable obstacle should be opposed to cabal, intrigue, and corruption.”
Every practicable obstacle… Sage advice, ignored at our peril. We can’t say we weren’t warned.