COVID-19 Has Shown Us The 2020 Election Can’t Be The Only Way To Check Trump’s Impulses

President Donald Trump listens to questions during a briefing on the latest development of the coronavirus outbreak in the press briefing room at the White House on March 20, 2020. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
March 21, 2020 9:00 a.m.
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Our constitutional system depends on accountability. That is a central part of what it means to live in a democracy as opposed to an authoritarian state. When the framers of the Constitution created the executive branch, critics worried that the President would become a king in a style of the 18th century British monarch — unaccountable to ordinary legal processes. More than 150 years before Harry Truman declared that “the buck stops here,” Alexander Hamilton explained in the Federalist Papers that, unlike the British king, the American president would be “personally responsible for his behavior in office.”

When the Anti-Federalists argued there should be a plural executive — co-presidents or a council of advisors to the president — Hamilton responded that having a single president would enhance accountability. Hamilton argued that creating a plural executive would “[tend] to conceal faults and destroy responsibility.” By providing for a single president, the Constitution would provide “a single object for the jealousy and watchfulness of the people.”

From the start, Donald Trump’s presidency has directly challenged Hamilton’s assumption. Trump, a would-be authoritarian, rejects the very notion of accountability — to the rule of law, to Congress, to the courts, to anyone. It has become a cliché to say that we are now accustomed to this kind of thing, to the idea that Trump can remain in office after committing impeachable offenses and there is simply nothing we can do about it, so long as congressional Republicans continue to pledge cult-like fealty to their leader.

Until recently, those of us — and there are many, as attested to by Trump’s deep unpopularity — who are appalled by the notion of a president unconstrained by law, ethics, or common decency, might have considered consoling ourselves with the notion that there is an upcoming election which can provide a final test of Trump’s ability to destroy the constitutional system with impunity.

The coronavirus crisis is a reminder that the election — still more than seven months away — cannot be the only device for checking Trump’s dangerous impulses. As we have watched with horror Trump’s failure to understand, prepare for, or speak honestly about the unfolding public health crisis, it has become clear that some Americans may pay with their lives for Trump’s incompetence. It is equally clear that Trump accepts no responsibility for any misstep he has made, no matter how serious — he has told us as much, in no uncertain terms.

In a functioning system, Trump would have already resigned. Trump’s failure to take the necessary steps to plan and prepare for a pandemic that public health experts and journalists told us was a threat to the United States is the functional equivalent of a failure to defend the United States against an attack by a foreign country. If a president failed to defend the nation against an impending military attack, downplayed or ignored the threat and lied about his response, we would expect politicians from both parties to hold him or her to account.

In our dystopian reality, however, Trump is unlikely to ever resign — no matter how profoundly, how publicly, how shamefully he fails — and Republicans in Congress will never hold him to account.

The ordinary mechanisms for accountability have failed — the cornerstones of the Madisonian system, where “ambition [would be] made to counteract ambition,” and each branch would use its constitutional tools to rein in excesses and abuses by the other branches. In our failed system, Republicans (and some journalists) will continue to act as if Trump is a normal president. That was bad enough before we faced this crisis. Now, as lives are literally at stake, it is intolerable and demands action.

With congressional Republicans failing to act, there are of course limits to what can be done to hold Trump to account. But there are still steps that can and should be taken. As soon as the immediate crisis has subsided (which may of course not be for months), House Democrats should hold hearings and demand answers for the administration’s breathtaking failure.

This is not merely a matter of principle—it is necessary to prepare for the possibility that the virus will return before the November election, and to do all we can to make sure we don’t have to rely on this incompetent president to once again mangle the response. A public airing of Trump’s failure could, perhaps, lead to calls for Trump to step aside and allow a President Pence to take over. For all his flaws, Pence might avoid some of Trump’s most dangerous mistakes – most centrally, by deferring to public health experts and abandoning Trump’s trademark refusal to accept any responsibility.

The election, itself, is of course a form of accountability — though it will come too late for this round of the current crisis (and perhaps too late for a second round if the virus returns in the autumn). Trump’s incompetence ought to transcend ordinary partisan lines. Tragically, we cannot expect anything of today’s congressional Republicans, who will follow Trump to the end. However, there are Republicans not in office — for example, Joe Walsh, Christine Todd Whitman, David Frum, Jennifer Rubin, Bill Kristol, Tom Nichols, Peter Wehner — who recognize the mortal danger Trump poses.

Those of us who recognize what we’re up against should frame the election in terms of national survival — both the survival of our constitutional democracy and, in some cases, the literal survival of Americans. These are not ordinary partisan issues, and Republicans or conservatives who recognize this should work to defeat Trump, as some already are. There should be calls for more Republicans and conservatives to stand up for Americans against the danger Trump poses — including public figures with household names like George W. Bush, Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice. 

This crisis already tested Trump. Given his temperament, his inexperience, and his ignorance, it was inevitable that he would fail. But the crisis tests all of us. Madison suggested that the people would be “the primary control” on government failure. With the stakes as high as can be, we will find out if he was right.


Chris Edelson is an assistant government professor at American University.

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