Trump is Pushing the Power of the Personality Cult Into Uncharted Territory
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Can A Presidential Candidate Really Be Disqualified?
“The theologian may indulge the pleasing task of describing Religion as she descended from Heaven, arrayed in her native purity. A more melancholy duty is imposed on the historian. He must discover the inevitable mixture of error and corruption which she contracted in a long residence upon Earth, among a weak and degenerate race of beings.”
― Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
It was the second day of November, nineteen-hundred and twenty. Eugene Debs, presidential candidate for the Socialist Party, sat behind a jail cell door. Woodrow Wilson, the exiting commander-in-chief, had put him there—sedition is an easy charge to level against the rational in times of war. And so proud is America of her revolutionary roots; a nation borne in violent struggle, founded by ideologues and intellectuals, a folkloric origin story that is both to be admired and learned from: revolutions begin with words. We were rebels once. We are rebels no more.
Yet from this state-imposed shame and isolation, Eugene Debs collected nearly a million votes. Warren G. Harding, then a senator from Ohio, ultimately became president. But if a man charged with inciting rebellion against the U.S. government can run for the presidency from a jail cell, is there anything that could really disqualify a presidential candidate from the race?
No. The list of qualifications to obtain the presidency is so short, no criminal act can knock a name off the ballot. Article 2, Clause 5 of the Constitution names only three requirements for would-be presidents:
“No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.”
But there’s more to the American tradition of political excommunication than the purely legalistic—or so we thought. In 2004, presidential candidate Howard Dean rejoiced just a bit too loudly. In 2011, Rick Perry couldn’t name the third division of government he wanted to shut down. In 1992, Dan Quayle spelled “potato” wrong. We love gaffes. We love gotchas. We were all, until recently, waiting with bloodthirsty jaws for the next career-ending faux pas.
The candidacy of Donald Trump cracked all the eggshells at once. There is no gaffe too big, no gotcha too jaw-dropping, no investigation too damning for the professional populist provocateur. Even after Trump’s pitfalls moved from the rhetorical to the physical – ten women have accused him of sexual misconduct – his most ardent supporters defend the Dear Leader with the fervor of religious apologists. The personality cult surrounding the Trump brand is strong, and every new lie and would-be career-ender pushes the concept of political loyalty further into uncharted territory—a traditional politician would have dropped out long ago. What must Trump do to lose his supporters’ votes?
Trump understands the value of his base—he’s whittled them down to those for whom he can do no wrong. In their eyes, Trump will never be disqualified.
To the broader American public, however, Donald Trump may have disqualified himself already. Sexual misconduct notwithstanding, his refusal to directly answer whether or not he’d accept the outcome of the election if he lost – unprecedented in a country that so values the peaceful transition of power – has elicited strong condemnation from both ends of the political aisle.
Writing in Forward, Jane Eisner makes the case that Trump violated America’s “civic religion”, and should therefore have disqualified himself in the minds of voters.
“Voting is in a sense America’s civic religion. If you don’t believe in it or if your faith takes you in a different direction, then stay home, or leave the country. But don’t run for president and, when the winds are not in your favor, seek to undermine the entire, cherished system. That, in my view, ought to be disqualifying. America’s voters will decide whether they agree.”
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