In December 2018, the female cast members of Saturday Night Live sang Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” to a giant portrait of Robert Mueller. If you don’t remember who that is in December 2023, Mueller is the former head of the FBI. In 2017, he’d been appointed as Special Counsel to investigate the possibility of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
In some ways, “Russiagate” feels like something that happened fifty or a hundred years ago. But it’s only been five years since liberals were pinning their hopes for a decisive political victory against Trump on the then-forthcoming “Mueller report.”
On Tuesday, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that Donald Trump is ineligible to appear on the state’s Republican primary ballot. The court’s majority reasoned that Trump is guilty of insurrection for his actions leading up to the January 6, 2021 riot when his supporters stormed the US Capitol. Thus, they said, he’s ineligible to serve as president again. The third section of the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution disqualifies those who participate in insurrections against the government from holding office in the future.
The legal merits of all this are in the eye of the beholder. The “insurrection” that inspired the Fourteenth Amendment was the Civil War. Whether January 6 counts, or whether Trump’s disgusting but ambiguous role in the event rises to the level where he could be held to have “engaged” in “insurrection,” is very much a matter of interpretation. It’s hard to see what precedent would meaningfully guide such determinations.
In practice, though, just as the Mueller investigation failed to take Trump out of the equation in 2018, it’s hard to image this and other attempts to take Trump off state ballots neutralizing him for 2024. The US Supreme Court has a comfortable conservative majority, and it seems quite likely that they’ll rule in his favor. If so, the effect of the ruling in Colorado — and any other states that join the effort to disqualify the former president — will be to hand the Trump campaign a formidable talking point for 2024. Imagine him saying, “They were so scared of Trump winning they tried to stop you from voting for him.”
The real question is: Why does this kind of thing keep happening? Why did so many liberals hope Trump’s original presidency would be ended not by politics but by the scandal known as Russiagate? Why do some now seem to be pinning their hopes for blocking his return to office not on beating him in the 2024 election but getting courts to exclude him from that election?
For that matter, why didn’t Democrats codify Roe v. Wade with federal legislation protecting abortion right during the years when the party controlled the House, the Senate, and the executive branch? Why didn’t they even try to take it out of the Supreme Court’s hands by securing legal abortion through the normal mechanisms of democratic politics?
All of these are examples of liberals hoping to achieve their political goals — or hold onto gains already made — without having to engage directly in democratic politics, per se. And that pattern reveals something about the pathologies of the current iteration of American liberalism.
As Thomas Frank discussed in his brilliant 2016 book Listen, Liberal: Or, Whatever Happened to the Party of the People?, the kind of liberalism dominant in the contemporary Democratic Party is technocratic. Its base is a layer of middle-class professionals who tend to think that the smartest, most competent experts should be in charge.
Socialists’ vision of justice is a society that guarantees everyone’s material needs and gives everyone a voice in shaping the institutions that touch their lives. The kind of liberals who gave us Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society were vastly less radical, but the vision they offered their supporters was still a version of raising the floor for everyone. By contrast, contemporary liberals, Frank argues, have redefined social justice to simply mean eliminating arbitrary barriers to the best and the brightest from each group meritocratically rising to the top so they can join all the other smart people in crafting the best solutions to social problems.
This dynamic was at its clearest in the 2016 election, when supporters of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton often expressed amazement that she wasn’t a shoo-in given that she was, they kept saying, “the most qualified candidate ever to run” for the office. It’s unclear whether this was true even on its own terms — George H. W. Bush, for example, had been both vice president and head of the CIA before he ran for president in 1988 — but the more important point is that it said everything about how liberals of this kind see the world that they framed the question in these terms. In their imagination, elections weren’t clashes between different groups with different political ideologies or different material interests; they were straightforward technocratic job interviews.
On a rhetorical level, at least, Joe Biden has sometimes shown flashes of the older kind of liberalism. (His record in office is far more of a mixed bag.) But the impulse of some of his supporters to try yet another end run around the electorate shows the endurance of the strain of liberalism Frank diagnosed. The desire to achieve victory by getting some neutral source of authority to make a decision in their favor, rather than by winning over the voters, has obvious appeal for people who think of politics like a job interview or an academic final exam.
Liberals have taken to saying that “democracy is on the ballot.” There’s a grain of truth there. There’s a powerful strain of authoritarianism on the Right, manifesting in contexts ranging from January 6 to the laws in various red states that make it harder to vote. Ron DeSantis’s Florida, for example, engaged in a truly grotesque and disturbing crackdown on ex-felons who registered to vote. But the complicated truth is that, even if they aren’t nearly as bad in important ways, liberal technocrats harbor their own kind of deep distaste for the unpredictable messiness of democracy.
Some liberals may feel that the Trumpist version of authoritarianism justifies trying to take the man who is, unfortunately, currently the leading candidate for the presidency off the ballot. In effect, they think democracy needs to be saved from itself.
But this is misguided for several reasons. First, as mentioned, it’s extremely likely to backfire in the 2024 election. Second, even if the Supreme Court overturns the Colorado ruling — and any that may be coming down the pike in other states — and it thus sets no legal precedent, the attempt to simply exclude a popular opponent from the election entirely may well set an informal political precedent right-wing authoritarians will follow in the future.
Finally and most importantly, this is all a huge distraction from a point that should be blindingly obvious. Is Joe Biden a deeply unpopular incumbent? Are his wars unpopular? Are voters dissatisfied with his economy? Would they prefer someone younger, whose cognitive condition is in less doubt? Is there a significant danger that Donald Trump will beat him next fall if the two men have a rematch?
Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes. But the answer to all these problems is very simple.
The Democrats can just run someone else with a more appealing platform. Someone who more people will vote for than vote for Donald Trump.
That is, at any rate, how democracies are supposed to work.