Voice

This Is How a Constitution Dies

The United States’ stalled presidential transition may seem like a farce—but it’s still the biggest constitutional crisis since the Civil War.

A copy of former President George Washington's personal copy of the Constitution and Bill of Rights is viewed at Christie's auction house on June 15, 2012 in New York City.
A copy of former President George Washington's personal copy of the Constitution and Bill of Rights is viewed at Christie's auction house on June 15, 2012 in New York City. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Before U.S. elected officials (including presidents), judges, government employees, and military personnel assume their positions, they make a pledge. This shared promise is not to protect the United States’ way of life, secure its national interests, defend its sovereign territory, or even to “keep the American people safe,” as former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama often inaccurately claimed. Rather, each person undertakes a solemn oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”

Preserving the Constitution is the overriding obligation of all government employees, because the document serves as the supreme law of the land. The evolving text enshrines the basic rights of Americans, and the limits and expectations of the states and branches of federal government. It was designed by the Founding Fathers to supersede and endure beyond the current whims of any elected leaders, judges, or other sources of power. National security and military personnel commit to protecting the Constitution above all else, because without its preservation none of their other missions or objectives truly matter.

The shared pledge to protect and defend the Constitution is worth highlighting to mark and appreciate this current national crisis for what it is: an effort led by the president to overturn the outcome of an election in which the president was a candidate. This overt undertaking is completely in character with President Donald Trump, totally unprecedented in U.S. history, and far more insidious than all the recent efforts of foreign electoral interference.

A short list of Trump’s contemptible behaviors since Nov. 3: He has retweeted unfounded claims about voting irregularities, hired lawyers to file absolutely meritless lawsuits that sought to disenfranchise millions of Americans, attempted to bully state and local officials who fulfilled their obligations to certify voter outcomes, threatened to withhold support to governors that refused to cooperate with the undemocratic scheme, fired government officials who had successfully protected voting infrastructure and countered ludicrous misinformation with clear facts, and more generally attacked the integrity of the entire electoral process.

Perhaps worse than the president’s own actions is how the vast majority of Republicans have debased themselves by abandoning their own oaths of office. They have cheered on Trump’s easily debunked and conspiratorial claims, pledged money to the president’s legal efforts, threatened state voting officials or asked those officials to shirk their duties, or hidden behind the more neutral position that bogus legal contests and unprecedented voter audits should be allowed to run their course—challenges which are comically pathetic and seemingly endless. If a defeated Democratic president mirrored Trump’s actions, the GOP would rightly condemn that person for sedition or treason. But hypocrisy is a defining vice of politics and the trademark of unprincipled politicians.

While some have framed this collective shirking of duty as choosing “party over country,” it is actually far more cowardly. Most Republican politicians and officials would rather protect themselves from an outgoing president’s aggressive tweet than protect the U.S. Constitution. They prefer to pretend Trump’s efforts are normal or acceptable, rather than assure an orderly transition to President-elect Joe Biden’s administration. These Republicans are neither principled, partisan, nor even power-hungry; they are merely scared of Trump.

The seriousness of any attempted crime (in this case seditious conspiracy) is not lessened because the perpetrators were buffoons or the scheme wildly unrealistic. Journalists and scholars wisely sounded the alarm about the numerous ways that Trump could contest the election results or refuse to concede to his challenger. But those journalists and scholars could not have appreciated the utter incompetence of Trump’s so-called elite strike force team, which was supposed to uncover shocking evidence of rampant and deliberate election fraud. Thankfully, the purported elite team has been as ineffective as it is embarrassing—since there was no widespread fraud to uncover.

Yet the intent of Trump, his party’s supplicants, and his comic legal team has been clear from the beginning. These domestic enemies plotted and pursued an undisguised attack on the Constitution of the United States. In time, historians will piece together a more complete picture of how this attack was brazenly attempted and ultimately defeated—a history that could be even more absurd and harebrained than we presently comprehend. However, today Americans should fully recognize what the president has been trying to achieve. It may seem funny, but cumulatively it represents the greatest threat to the Constitution since the Civil War.

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.