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When the Center Was Shaky, the System Held
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When the Center Was Shaky, the System Held

Donald Trump couldn’t overcome a nation ‘thick with laws.’

Here is a reassuring Thanksgiving thought and a remarkable fact of recent American life. For the last three weeks, the most powerful man in the world—the person who commands arguably the most powerful military in the history of the world and retains the devotion of legions of followers—rejected the legitimacy of an election, persuaded tens of millions of his fellow citizens to reject the legitimacy of that same election, and yet never once possessed a remotely plausible path to retaining power.

Behold the majesty of the American system of government, built through a unique combination of world-historic idealism about what a government should be (a guardian of human liberty and dignity) and a world-weary cynicism about what a government can be (a malign instrument of power and control). This combination of idealism and mistrust has created a government hemmed in by a thicket of laws at every level, from top to bottom, and while that thicket of laws can often frustrate reformers, at its base it’s one of the (small “c”) conservative bedrocks of American society.

I’m reminded of this famous exchange from A Man for All Seasons:

William Roper: “So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!”

Sir Thomas More: “Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?”

William Roper: “Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!”

Sir Thomas More: “Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!”

Donald Trump is by no means the devil, but his actions were deranged. He “turned ‘round” on American democracy and found our country “planted thick with laws, from coast to coast.” Consider just a few of the ways in which the law protected this election from the rage and fury of many of the most powerful people in all of American life. 

Georgia’s senators united to call for the resignation of Georgia’s secretary of state. They had no power to fire him. 

Activists, lawyers, and politicians united to make claims of widespread voter fraud. They could not overcome the Federal Rules of Evidence. 

The same activists, lawyers, and politicians united to argue for novel legal remedies that would disenfranchise millions of voters even in the absence of the proof of fraud. They could not overcome decades of judicial precedent.

In surveying these last few weeks of litigation and protests, what’s remarkable isn’t that it took courage to oppose the president and much of the GOP establishment, but how ultimately easy it was to block the president’s schemes, how little courage it actually took. 

For example, I highly recommend Tim Alberta’s latest report, in Politico, which describes both the sheer scale of the Trump team’s effort to reverse the outcome of the election in Michigan, but also the way in which a single official could stop him in his tracks. It begins like this:

After five years spent bullying the Republican Party into submission, President Donald Trump finally met his match in Aaron Van Langevelde.

Who?

That’s right. In the end, it wasn’t a senator or a judge or a general who stood up to the leader of the free world. There was no dramatic, made-for-Hollywood collision of cosmic egos. Rather, the death knell of Trump’s presidency was sounded by a baby-faced lawyer, looking over his glasses on a grainy Zoom feed on a gloomy Monday afternoon, reading from a statement that reflected a courage and moral clarity that has gone AWOL from his party, pleading with the tens of thousands of people watching online to understand that some lines can never be uncrossed.

“We must not attempt to exercise power we simply don’t have,” declared Van Langevelde, a member of Michigan’s board of state canvassers, the ministerial body with sole authority to make official Joe Biden’s victory over Trump. “As John Adams once said, ‘We are a government of laws, not men.’ This board needs to adhere to that principle here today. This board must do its part to uphold the rule of law and comply with our legal duty to certify this election.”

And why was Van Langevelde more powerful than the president in that moment? Because of the law. The man who spends his life a few feet from the nuclear football was impotent in the face of Michigan election law. It took courage for Van Langevelde to comply with that law—no question—but once he did his duty, the president’s options narrowed all the more.

Moreover, the law is also so robust that if Van Langevelde failed—if he yielded to presidential pressure and failed to cast the deciding vote certifying Michigan’s vote—even then the president was unlikely to triumph. Defenders of Michigan’s vote would have had ample legal recourse to preserve the will of the voters. 

So, is this an argument that everyone should have just chilled out online these last three weeks? Yes and no. Yes, our discourse can use less alarmism. There was never a credible chance that Trump could have retained power. There was never going to be a coup. 

At the same time, the system held in spite of the desires and efforts of many powerful people who lead immense constituencies. The system survived, but confidence in the system has been degraded. And that’s a very serious thing indeed. Over time, no system can survive a sustained collapse in public confidence.

So it was necessary and important for defenders of the American republic to stand up and push back against the president. Every public controversy is also a teaching moment, and for public political figures, silence in the face of the president’s depredations constituted a form of consent.   

Last week my friend and former colleague Jay Nordlinger wrote a thoughtful meditation on the word “conservative.” If you describe yourself as a conservative, what does it mean? For a long time, the term “conservative” was so closely associated with a specific policy outlook (pro-life, limited government, strong national defense) that the definition of a “squish” or “RINO” depended mainly on how closely you hewed to those ideals. 

That consensus is gone now. In fact, there never was quite as much consensus as we thought. So what is a conservative? That’s a topic for a longer conversation, but for a short answer, it’s hard to do better than this:

George Will has titled his most recent book “The Conservative Sensibility.” He also asks a basic, mandatory question: “What are conservatives trying to conserve?” His answer, for American conservatives, is: our Founding.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men …”

Ah, “secure”! That is the most important word in the Declaration, says Will. First come rights—our natural rights—and then comes government. It is the job of government to secure our rights.

Our founding created a system. That system is based in both idealism about human possibilities and realism about human nature. It has survived war and cataclysm. It is surviving disillusion and cynicism. But we cannot take it for granted. And we do know what conservatism should conserve.

One last thing …

Longtime readers know that the best part of this newsletter may well be my premium pop culture recommendations. From The Expanse, to Ted Lasso, to The Morning Show, and to The Last Kingdom, I never lead you astray. So believe me when I say that if you like a murder mystery, and you’re not watching The Undoing on HBO, you should be. 

And you’re in luck! You can spend the holiday bingeing all the episodes before this Sunday night, when (I think) the last episode airs. Good times.

https://youtu.be/QWoiNlLqLR8

Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images.

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.