A year ago the op-ed writers who present themselves as tutors to the nation insisted that Donald Trump could not and would not become president. Progressive pundits were certain of this—after all, they didn’t know anyone who was voting for him. The Republican wing of the commentariat, however, was equally sure that Trump would fail: David Brooks and Ross Douthat, Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner, Jennifer Rubin and Kathleen Parker all agreed. How could so much collected wisdom go wrong?
Yet the American people did not follow the script—couldn’t they read?—and they elected this man whom they had been told, time and again, was “disqualified” from office because he did not meet with the approval of newspaper moralists. No great self-examination followed on the part of the pundits who blew their prognostications. Instead, they have set about correcting history. The voters made a mistake; they didn’t listen. So now the same keyboards that proved Trump could not win are pounded upon to show how he can be removed from office.
If the public would not heed wise counsel, then Congress and the President’s own Cabinet must do so. They must dispose of Trump through whatever constitutional means are available. Impeachment is in order—even if the President has yet to be accused plausibly of doing anything illegal. Or try the 25th Amendment, which provides for elevating the vice president if the duly elected president is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” Ross Douthat lent his imprimatur to the latter approach in a May New York Times column.
On topics other than Trump, Douthat is usually the most sensible member of his class. But he reached his nadir with his suggestion that the 25th Amendment be used to cashier Trump. For one thing, removing any president through the amendment’s provisions is much harder than simply impeaching him. The 25th Amendment requires first that the vice president and a majority of “the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide”—ominous wording, it must noted—declare to the speaker of the House of Representatives and the speaker pro tempore of the Senate that the president is unable to carry out his duties. If the president refuses to accept this judgment on the part of his vice president and Cabinet, Congress must then decide the question, with the president remaining in power unless a two-thirds majority in both chambers affirms that he is indeed incapacitated. By contrast, only a simple majority in the House is required to impeach, and a two-thirds majority in the Senate alone is sufficient for conviction and removal.
The practical and political hurdles to deposing a president through the 25th Amendment are all but insurmountable, unless he really is in no condition to resist the effort. The provision was intended for cases where the president had been sidelined by, say, a stroke; it was not designed as an instrument for carrying out a constitutional coup. What’s more, the language of the amendment does not precisely lead, as in impeachment, to a president’s removal. Rather, the vice president becomes “acting president,” and by the letter of the law, the duly elected president would seem to be able to bring the case for resuming his duties back to Congress as many times as he likes.
As farfetched as a suggestion for using the 25th Amendment against Trump may be, it springs from the same source as other pundits’ more conventional calls for impeaching him. Normal politics—the politics of primary and general elections, giving party activists and the public their say—has led to a place that our opinion leaders deem unimaginable. So in return, they have abandoned normal politics. They have a problem with Trump, to be sure, but he’s not at the root of their anxiety: The more fundamental problem is with Trump’s voters and the mechanisms that express their will. Normal politics can only be tolerated as long as it produces the right results. When it fails to do so, the rules have to change. Instead of working to influence the next election, the pundits are now fixated on overturning the last one.
But this is a sign of deep confusion on the part of the commentariat itself. So long as there are elections, and so long as the public continues to repudiate what the op-ed pages teach, there can always be another Trump—or something the New York Times and Washington Post find even worse. When mandarins already know the correct answers that democracy is supposed to return, why should they take a risk on letting the people have their say? Why stop at impeaching a president or declaring him incapable, when what really needs to be impeached and sidelined as incompetent is the American public?
This is a question one should not expect the columnists to confront. But it arises naturally from their incomprehension at the American people’s decision—and their desperation to find a means other than the next election by which to overturn it.