It is hard to argue Donald Trump’s handling of the Coronavirus Pandemic does not present an active danger to the people of America. Even if you do not think he has spent the last three years blundering his way through disaster after disaster, throwing America and the world into chaos, and you agree with most of his policies, you would have to be willingly deluded not to think his comments on injecting disinfectants to stop the virus caused serious harm. Especially after the flood of stories we’ve seen since of people turning up in emergency rooms having injected watered down bleach, or people dying because they trusted the president. Whether he’s malicious or just incredibly stupid, having Donald Trump in the driver’s seat of America is no longer a car crash in the making; the crash has happened, it caused a seven-car pileup, and the road cracked. Removing him from power is now a necessity. Unfortunately, the main method of removing a president, other than defeating them at an election, is Impeachment and that has already been tried. As fun as it would be to impeach Trump for the second time in five months, another path has to be found. Fortunately, the constitution has one.
The 25th Amendment of the US Constitution deals with the issue of a president losing the ability to handle the power of the office by stating that if they are judged to be unable to carry out the responsibilities of their office, the vice president and a majority of the cabinet can write a letter to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House. At that point, the vice president would become acting president, with the president keeping their title without any of the powers, and the most efficient coup of all time is complete. It seems like the easy solution to take Trump off the board during this crisis, while not actually kicking him out of office. So, what is stopping that from happening now?
Nothing in politics is ever simple, so there are multiple factors at work here. Firstly, Section 4, the part of the amendment that allows the cabinet to strip the president of his powers, has never been used. The last time using it even came close to being an issue was during the Reagan era, during his decline, when Chief of Staff Donald Regan told his successor Howard Baker that Reagan might need it used on him. But ultimately Baker decided it wasn’t necessary. Politics is often a coward’s game: no one wants to go first. Without precedent to fall back on, the idea of just getting rid of the president until he’s ready to be trusted again sounds like an insane risk to most politicians.
Secondly, what grounds would they claim to justify the action? Again, the lack of precedent hurts them here. All that Section 4 asks it that the President cannot do his job. Simple incompetence might do the trick, but that raises the question of why that wasn’t an issue for the last three years. And that is a question that most of Trump’s cabinet probably wants to avoid. The other major reason presidents normally give powers up for is illness or medical emergencies; Dick Cheney became acting president while George W. Bush had surgery. But Donald Trump’s physical health hasn’t noticeably deteriorated. So that leaves them one option: casting doubt on the soundness of his mind.
Ever since the day he came down that escalator and promised to build a wall, Donald Trump has faced an unusual amount of speculation about his mental health, particularly from psychologists. He’s been accused of being a malignant narcissist, an outright sociopath, or an old man deeply in the grip of dementia. Trump wouldn’t even be the first man the presidency broke; LBJ’s aides spent the final years of his presidency terrified of his increasing paranoia and fits of explosive ranting. If Mike Pence decided to declare that Trump’s mind was no longer up to the job, he would face few disagreements. But that sets a dangerous precedent of its own. There is a reason why psychologists have largely stayed out of presidential politics after the introduction of the Goldwater rule in 1973, which prevents psychologists giving their professional opinion about public figures whom they have not examined in person. It is incredibly unethical to make statements about a person’s mental health unless you are a qualified professional who has examined them and has consent to break confidentiality. I actually went back, while drafting this article, and tried to make sure that I did not actually make any direct claims about Trump’s mental health. A person’s mental health is a careful thing, and it should not be a matter for politicians to just declare in order to remove inconveniences.
Of course, the discussion about the precedent and the case are largely missing the point; he would still need a cabinet willing to do something to stop him, and a senate receptive to claims for his incompetence, and any resistance the Republican party had towards Donald Trump died on the morning of November 9th 2016. Even if it were only temporary, it would be electoral suicide for them to declare their presidential candidate unfit on the eve of the election. The Republicans had their only chance to ditch Trump handed to them with Impeachment, and they threw it away. And, it has to be said, plenty of Republicans agree with him. Maybe they are not all racing to inject bleach into their veins, but governors like Brian Kemp and Ron DeSantis are following his lead on wanting to get out of lockdown and supporting the “liberate America” protests. None of them have asked their constituents to inject bleach yet, but the way they play follow the leader means they can’t be that far off. Yet again, Trump has defeated the document designed to keep him in check.
The 25th Amendment will not save us. It’s hard to say if that’s because our current movement has abandoned so many norms that no one is willing to act in the best interests of the nation, or if it won’t work because it was never going to work. We’ll probably never know, and that’s a good thing; the 25th Amendment is an antidemocratic nightmare and using it in the middle of the current chaos could have only led to a greater disaster. Sometimes, it’s better to leave the knife in to stop the blood loss. But the speculation about the 25th Amendment points to a greater issue: people still expect someone or something else to save them from Trump. People are always looking for a hero, when the reality of the world is that most political problems are solved as part of a larger movement. It’s the great man theory of history applied to current affairs. If the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that relying on institutions to bail us out will not work. The Constitution is not going to stop Trump, Congress is not going to stop Trump, Robert Mueller is not going to stop Trump. The only way Trump is going to be stopped is at the ballot box.
Photo: Anthony Garand on Unsplash