This Post originally appeared at The Nation.
If you are sick of President Trump’s crackpot tweets and libelous falsehoods, consider instead the small-d democratic possibilities inherent in his presidency. Yes, Trump’s Cabinet appointees have discretionary powers that can do grave damage to our society, not to mention the planet. Yes, by freakish happenstance, an unstable character with irresponsible impulses has been put in charge of the national government.
But Trump is not in charge of us. People all over know this and are putting themselves in motion. The ferment is about more than the marches and banners. People are beginning to see themselves as active agents in the legislative battles, entitled to be heard because they are citizens. Does that sound corny? Yes, some of us are corny optimists.
The Trump presidency has become an epic opportunity for small-d democratic revival and reform. Instead of passive spectators, people must push back hard and develop ways to become active participants in the legislative action. They can reclaim their voice and intrude on government decision-making, whether or not party professionals wish to hear from them. Both parties have become comfortable and complacent with a hollow democracy, in which half of the citizenry doesn’t bother to vote.
So how can the people talk back to Donald Trump? By proposing that the Senate adopt a resolution of censure officially denouncing Trump for his flagrantly fraudulent claims and, even worse, his unconstitutional behavior as president. The list of potential charges is robust. He and his family are blatantly in violation of the Constitution’s emoluments clause, which prohibits presidents from drawing business benefits from foreign interests. Trump also routinely falsifies official reporting to his own administration. Think of official censure as the highbrow answer to Trump tweets.
A veteran government lawyer (and old friend) suggested this model for a censure resolution: “Resolved, that President Donald Trump, by deliberately and without any evidence accusing former President Barack Obama of criminal conduct, has disgraced his office, misled the American people, damaged the prestige of the nation and endangered our national security.”
Censure is not impeachment but merely an expression of disapproval by one’s political peers. But the political debate, win or lose, could become a potent teaching opportunity for serious politicians and activists. If Republicans decide to block the resolution, they might be censured themselves in the next election.
Our narcissistic president would probably go nuts. He is obsessed with his critics and rightly feels vulnerable because of his own shallow ignorance of governing politics. Even if the censure vote fails, there will be numerous other issues to consider. Examining Trump’s tenure issue by issue in this focused way should encourage the media to provide deeper understanding of how government actually works. People are smarter than the pundits realize.
People may ask: Why haven’t we heard about the censure option before? Because the device was used once, then put aside, though never repealed. Only one US president was ever censured by Senate resolution: Andrew Jackson, in 1834. Jackson, as it happens, is a personal hero of Donald Trump; the president recently laid a wreath on Jackson’s tomb in Nashville, Tennessee.
The two presidents share some of the same rough-hewn qualities and vile attitudes on race. Both were champions of the common folk (or pretended to be) and brutally indifferent to racial minorities. Both were contemptuous of judges and judicial power. When Chief Justice Marshall ruled against President Jackson’s forced removal of the Cherokees from their homelands in 1830, Jackson sneered, “John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it.”
Sounds like something Trump might have said about Muslims. This is an odd historical symmetry — we can give it renewed meaning by making Trump, after Jackson, only the second US president to be formally censured by the Senate.