How a Populist Destroys America

Constitutional limits don’t mean anything if they’re not enforced.

Donald Trump waves to a crowd
Darren Hauck / Getty

Donald Trump inflames the passions of his supporters by calling impeachment a “coup,” while his campaign manager raises funds by calling impeachment a “seditious conspiracy to overthrow the people’s president.” Attempting a slightly more legalistic gloss in a letter to Congress, Trump’s White House counsel wound up calling impeachment “unconstitutional.”

This isn’t just jarring; it’s absurd. Impeachment is all right there—plain as day—in the text of the Constitution. The House of Representatives is clearly vested with the “sole power of Impeachment,” and the Senate with the “sole power to try all Impeachments.” The Constitution even commands that the president “shall be removed from Office on Impeachment.” Following constitutional procedures is by definition constitutional, the exact opposite of a coup or sedition. Isn’t this exquisitely clear? Yes, if you happen to be a constitutionalist working from the Constitution.

But Trump is not. He’s a populist who thinks that he alone represents the American people against a corrupt elite—an elite that has turned to impeachment “to take away the Power of the People.” Just as Trump shrugged off the “phony” emoluments clause,  he thinks the constitutional clauses establishing impeachment must yield to the man who embodies the authentic voice of the people. It’s not just that constitutional institutions and norms do not matter to him; it’s that he sees them as illegitimate when they constrain his power.

More legitimate, in his mind, is his role as the putative voice of the people. Populism is a disposition, rather than a fully worked-out theory of government. Its essence is that the voice of the people is the true voice of democracy, but that voice is corrupted by elites. What’s needed is a populist leader to speak for the singular and commonsense understandings of the people. Trump proclaims to his supporters, “I am your voice!” and casts himself as the only person capable of speaking for them and solving their problems.

Now, it may seem odd that a president who won fewer votes than his opponent, who has never had an approval rating that captured a majority of the population, and who led his party to lose seats in the last congressional election, positions himself as the true voice of the people. But populism is distinct from simple majoritarianism or direct democracy.

Unlike simple majoritarian democracy or a pure version of direct democracy where the people represent themselves and vote directly, populism proffers an imagined vision of the people. The Princeton professor Jan-Werner Müller explains: The “core claim of populism” is that only “some of the people are really the people.” Populists such as Trump pit “real” Americans against both a corrupt elite and those portions of the population who are suspect—usually for racial, ethnic, or religious reasons—and therefore not considered true Americans.

I won’t rehash the whole litany, but Trump delights in demeaning minorities who are not, in his eyes, properly part of the people. Recall Trump’s reluctance to distance himself from a white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, even while those marching chanted “Blood and soil,” “You will not replace us,” and “Jews will not replace us.” Trump has characterized Mexican immigrants in ugly and divisive terms, spoken of immigrants and refugees as subhuman “savages,” called for the surveillance of Muslim Americans, and promised to ban Muslims from entering the country.

Over the summer, Trump turned his ire to a handful of congresswomen of color. Rather than criticizing them, Trump suggested that they go back to the “totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” It happens that three of the four women were born in America, making them citizens from birth. But birthright citizenship—the long-standing mandate of the Fourteenth Amendment, which Trump has pondered undoing—is not enough to truly make one part of the people, according to Trump. The fourth congresswoman is a naturalized citizen whose family fled political and religious violence in Somalia to find sanctuary in America. Her aspirations for American citizenship were not unlike those of the refugees from Somalia whom Trump defamed at a recent rally in Minnesota. For Trump, these women are not true Americans. They are no part of the “people” for whom he speaks.

Of course, the “people” and constitutionalism are not inherently at odds. The idea that the people are the source of all legitimate power and authority has deep roots in the American Constitution. The Constitution, after all, pronounces itself an act of “We the People.” And as James Madison insisted in “Federalist No. 40,” the Constitution would be of no more consequence than the paper it was written on unless approved by the people. Yet there is a deep difference between a constitutional understanding of popular sovereignty and populism.

A crucial difference, made evident throughout The Federalist Papers, is that the Constitution’s vision is to erect a popular government that cools the passions rather than inflames them. Imperfect as they are, American institutions were designed to nurture reason and reflection. The great fear, as Jeffrey Rosen explained in these pages, was that popular government would succumb to a demagogue or mob. How, then, to hold at bay popular passions while still creating a government in which the people are the “ultimate authority”?

A simple way to think about America’s complex constitutionalism is to understand the public good as something constructed by politics. It is not foreordained. Nor are the people debating it morally pure. By way of the clash of different interests and ideas, nourished by institutional design, Madison’s vision seeks the refinement and enlargement of popular opinion.

Populism, in contrast, pushes aside the deliberate tensions within the constitutional scheme, situating the voice of the people as the defining element of our politics. The people are imbued with a peculiar moral clarity: They ineluctably hold the right answers to pressing public concerns. The public good is not something to be constructed, but something latent in the people themselves. In Trump’s hands, the people are synonymous with his voters: “The other people don’t mean anything.”

Skeptical of having to negotiate a public good, Trump’s populist spirit indulges easy solutions: Build the wall; replace the Affordable Care Act with something really great. But governing is hard within the separation of powers. Even with Republican majorities in Congress, nothing was done on the wall. Nothing was done on health care.

So Trump retreats to populist rallies, where he rouses the passions of his loyal base and rails against the “enemies of the people.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Representative Adam Schiff are traitors; so too are career public servants who testify before Congress without his approval, while Republican critics are “human scum.” It’s fitting that Trump hugs the flag, all emotion, but is ignorant of the Constitution, which is more cerebral. A combining mind is required to understand how the Constitution can serve both democracy and the rule of law.

Fearful of such demagoguery, in “Federalist No. 57 Madison insisted: "The aim of every political constitution is, or ought to be, first to obtain for rulers, men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue the common good of the society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous whilst they continue to hold their public trust." Elected political leaders, who hold their office as a public trust, are not merely to act as a mouthpiece of the citizenry but to see further than the masses—"to refine and enlarge the public views," to have the wisdom to "discern the true interest of their country," and to do so against "temporary or partial considerations." Representative democracy is preferable to direct democracy precisely because it’s designed to foster, channel, and educate public opinion.

Yet just as surely as it sought to limit popular passions, the Constitution was designed to check and limit those who held public office and wielded political power. As Alexander Hamilton put it in “Federalist No. 71,” we also want to protect against “the snares of the ambitious, the avaricious, the desperate.” Hamilton warned against demagogues practicing the popular arts, who flatter us while betraying the public interest. Indeed, in the very first Federalist Paper, Hamilton warned against “those men who have overturned the liberties of a republic ... by paying an obsequious court to the people, commencing Demagogues and ending Tyrants.”

Should constitutional institutions fail—should someone with the “talents for low intrigue” occupy the highest office and act to corrupt the public good for personal gain—impeachment is the proper constitutional remedy.

Hamilton describes impeachment as a check in the hands of Congress against an “abuse or violation of some public trust.” Removing a president from office requires a majority vote in the House to impeach, and then a two-thirds vote in the Senate to remove. It is a process, as Yoni Appelbaum has argued, that mirrors the deliberation and reason that Madison hoped our political institutions would foster. The impeachment process is part of building and shaping public opinion. The burden is on those who would impeach to explain why Trump has abused power in a way that damages our constitutional democracy.

Yes, Trump’s populist supporters will cry foul, insisting that impeachment overturns an election, undoing the will of the people. That’s not quite right. If Trump is removed, his sitting vice president, elected on the same ticket, would become president. Consider, too, that we had an election in 2018 where Democrats took control of the House. This reflects the Constitution’s complex scheme of representation against a simple-minded populism.

And, far more important from a constitutional perspective, elections alone are not the highest good. Richard Nixon won in a landslide in 1972, taking 49 of 50 states in the Electoral College and capturing 60 percent of the popular vote. He was removed from office less than two years later. However popular, a president remains bound by the Constitution and law. Removing a president who persistently and cavalierly disregards both can serve to reaffirm our ideal that no man is above the law or beyond the Constitution. At least not yet.

The House may not impeach. More likely, the Senate may vote not to remove Trump. It’s a constitutional judgment. But at what cost?

Trump jokes about serving a third term or, following Chinese President Xi Jinping, of being president for life. To be sure, given his populist persuasion, he is rousing his supporters and triggering the “enemies of the people” in his perpetual culture war. He’s called impeachment unconstitutional and the emoluments clause phony. Why not the Twenty-Second Amendment, our constitutional limit on the number of times an individual can be elected president? Having used the power of the state to dig up dirt on a political opponent, why not use the power of the state to strip political opponents of constitutional rights? Why not lock them up? They’re the “enemies of the people” after all. And as his press secretary just put it, “It’s horrible anyone would oppose Trump.” Merging himself with the people and the state, he does not tolerate criticism from his own party, nor does he recognize the legitimate opposition of the other party—the very cornerstone of our constitutional democracy. Trump has made clear how much he admires populist figures such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who are actively undoing constitutional democracy in their home countries.

Perhaps this is overwrought. But constitutional limits are mere parchment barriers if we do not enforce them. Why would we expect Republicans, having capitulated at nearly every turn, to suddenly defend constitutional limits, principles, and norms?

This is just how a populist demagogue can bring down constitutional institutions.