Outside the Box: It will take more than Doug Jones’s win over Roy Moore to undo Trump

Voters are in an anti-Trump mood.

Democrat Doug Jones’s surprising win over controversial Republican Roy Moore in Tuesday’s Alabama U.S. Senate election underscores Trump’s deep political trouble. The president’s job-approval ratings are below 40%. His decision to throw his support behind Moore in the Alabama election failed to convince voters in a deep-red state that backed Trump by a nearly 2-1 margin in 2016.

In a constitutional democracy, elections are of course a fundamental tool that can help set things right. Last month’s results in Virginia and other states, as well as yesterday’s election in Alabama, suggest that a groundswell of voter opposition is building against both Trump and the Republican party. Polling suggests this disapproval could carry over to the 2018 elections, perhaps costing the GOP its majorities in Congress.

Still, the 2018 elections are still almost a year away — and there is no guarantee as to their outcome or  consequences for Trump and the GOP. Even if Democrats do win control of the House and begin impeachment proceedings, it’s hard to see a two-thirds vote in the Senate that would be required to remove Trump from office.

That said, new information about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Trump-Russia investigation consistently comes to light. The revelation that former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn  has pleaded guilty and is cooperating with Mueller is the biggest news so far, as it suggests that Flynn may provide information that could prove criminal liability for people at the highest level of the Trump team,  including perhaps the president himself.

Those of us who see Trump’s kleptocratic, authoritarian-minded presidency as a threat to constitutional democracy wonder whether Flynn’s deal and Jones’s victory points a way out of the national crisis we’ve lived through for the past year. The problem is that there’s no way to be sure. Jones’s win might energize Democratic voters in 2018, pushing them to the congressional majorities needed to rein Trump in. 

But these setbacks for the Republican party might also motivate the GOP to recalibrate its electoral strategy enough to shore up their control in both the House and Senate. As for the Russia investigation, columnist Dahlia Lithwick observes that no matter what conclusions Mueller reaches — even if he finds that Trump engaged in serious criminal wrongdoing — Republicans in Congress might simply yawn.  There is also the lingering possibility that Trump will launch a frontal assault on the rule of law by firing Mueller.

None of this is meant to suggest that Mueller’s investigation is a waste of time. The investigation has already shown that top Trump campaign officials knew about and welcomed Russia’s assistance in the election; Trump administration officials “conspired to give Moscow a pass despite (or perhaps because of) Russia’s attack on our democracy.” That itself is damning; never before in American history has there been a presidential campaign or presidency that sided with a foreign country against America’s self-interest in fair, legitimate elections. In addition, the Mueller investigation has already led to guilty pleas and indictments; it would be surprising if there isn’t more to come.  

Yet it is a mistake to see Mueller as a savior. He has a limited mandate, and limited tools available to him. Trump has done damage that has nothing to do with Mueller’s investigation. 

Making the necessary repairs to the nation forces us to look elsewhere. Whenever and however Trump leaves office, it will be necessary to address underlying fissures and cracks in our constitutional democracy, many of which were problems well-before 2016. Some of these have been exacerbated or exploited by Trump and his Republican allies in Congress — for instance, white nationalism, voter suppression, and gerrymandering. 

Trump’s divisive, wanna-be authoritarian presidency has exposed and highlighted what columnist E.J. Dionne calls the “rot” in our political system.  It’s gotten bad enough that Moore, an accused child molester, came close to winning a U.S. senate seat, with the support of both President Trump and the Republican party. 

Trump was right when he said the system is rigged — but it’s rigged in favor of people like him and Moore: white men with money and power. The tax bill that recently passed the Senate makes clear how disconnected elites like Trump and congressional Republicans are from ordinary people.  This wildly unpopular legislation would benefit the wealthyat the expense of middle class and working class Americans. 

Trump has brought these problems into sharp focus: the current system is of, by, and for the wealthy and well-connected. It is a system that allows Trump and his Republican allies in Congress to consolidate power with minority support.  Even if Democrats win a significant national majority of votes case in House races next year, gerrymandering could prevent them from gaining majority control. We’ve seen that  constitutional democracy itself is on shaky footing, as democratic norms have eroded. Trump’s exit from the scene won’t magically make these problems disappear.

If we were starting from scratch, is this the political system we would design?

A crisis on the scale that we’re experiencing demands bold, creative thinking.  We should ask this fundamental question: If we were starting from scratch, is this the political system we would design? A political system flooded with money, one that often allows a minority of the population to control results, is a strange system indeed. Setting this right means, at the least, scrapping the electoral college, getting rid of gerrymandering, and changing the way representation works in the Senate. 

Dramatic changes of this kind would require a new Constitution (for one thing, the existing document guarantees less-populous states like Wyoming the same number of senators as states with larger populations like Florida, unless small states voluntarily agree to make a change).  As the framers of the Constitution set aside the flawed Articles of Confederation in favor of the Constitution in 1787, we need a new constitutional process today to create a new national document.

It’s no surprise that many Americans have lost confidence and faith in the U.S. political system; this is precisely what Trump capitalized on when he promised to “drain the swamp.”  As president, Trump has shown no interest in delivering on this campaign promise. When he leaves office, it will be up to all of us to create a new system worthy of America’s best ideals — ideals no longer reflected in reality, if they ever were.

Chris Edelson is an assistant professor of government in American University’s School of Public Affairs. His latest book, “ Power Without Constraint: The Post 9/11 Presidency and National Security ,” was published in May 2016 by the University of Wisconsin Press.

 Now read:Rex Nutting says Donald Trump builds the best swamps

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