I want to discuss the connection of conventions and knowledge by consideration of a political speculation.
The speculation is Could US President Trump declare a third term, or even become president for life?
If you don’t like speculating that Trump is able to violate existing convention, then substitute the name of your favourite political villain, who has power, whenever you read the word ‘Trump’, or just delete the word Trump. Cut and paste if necessary.
To begin to answer this question we have to ask “What is a constitution?” “What kind of power does a constitution have, and how does it get it?” and “how do people know about the constitution?”
I will suggest that constitutions have power because of the way they are interpreted, and the web of institutions and conventions that grow up around that constitution. This web of conventions and interpretations, sets up people’s knowledge about the constitution. Most people will not know the constitution in detail, they will only know it by what they are told, or how they are told to read it. As the interpretations change and the web of institutions change, or the conventions around those institutions change or weaken, then the interpretations of the constitution, knowledge of the constitution, and the role of the constitution can change. No constitution has power in itself alone, outside of this dynamic and complex context.
Constitutions are, like most laws, to a large extent decided by argument and by what people find they can get away with.
To return to the initial question about President Trump. This is of course a difficult question to predict the answer to, because the answer precisely depends on the interactions in complex web of institutions, conventions and interpretations, which will inevitably be involved in political struggle. Victory in that struggle is hard, perhaps impossible, to predict.
The simple answer to the question about President Trump, is that ‘constitutionally’ “no, it can’t happen” because of constitutional amendment XXII.
The status of an amendment is, again, not set in stone, but in convention. That the term limit is set by an amendment, may suggest the Constitution could be amended again to remove that clause. There is also a debate as to whether the framers of the constitution would have supported such an amendment, or whether they may have intended the President to be an elected king. If so, people could argue that the amendment is unconstitutional in itself and should be revoked, subject to further debate, repealed, or de-ratified in some way. If the institutions, or some of them, could be persuaded, or commanded, to be considerate of this view then the struggle is partly over. Yes there will likely be dispute, but the result depends on the strength of conventional institutions, their interpretations and the ruthlessness of the politics supporting or challenging these conventions.
To repeat, constitutions are matters of struggle, interpretation and precedents which are not certain – the knowledge of the precedents and what the constitution means is tied up with the interpretation of the Constitution. Words are always ambiguous, and their meaning can alter as the context (political or otherwise) alters. Even knowledge of the past can be interpreted in different ways and become a different history, which then gives different meanings to the present, and can be used to justify the argument the presenter wishes to justify. So the supposed constitutional framework of politics, and knowledge of that framework, is affected by the politics that is conducted within it.
President Trump and his party have to be admired for the skill with which they have undermined convention, interpretation, precedent and knowledge, and have set up new modes of interpretation and knowledge which favour them. It is no longer apparently disapproved for the President and his family to profit financially from the presidency. It is no longer disapproved for the President to accept help from a foreign power to boost his electoral chances. The President can apparently seek to obstruct the course of justice and it is not a problem.
President Trump has been explicitly attacking standard conventions of the US constitution. He has claimed that Article II gives him powers which no one has previously realized. He says it means he can do whatever he likes. People who are experts in the Law, say this is not true, but he has made the point, and his followers are more likely to believe him, than the experts. He has not been condemned for making these claims about the lack of limits on his power, by many people on his side of politics.
He has also claimed on two separate occasions that he can easily overthrow the 14th Amendment which says:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.
Initially he claimed he could change it by executive order, and later by somewhat vague method. However, it is being asserted that the Constitution is not immutable and that he can suspend it, and those who say he can’t are wrong. Importantly Republican members of Congress seem to be largely not protesting against these claims, which suggests tacit support for Constitutional fragility, as long as it benefits them.
If any of this is disturbing to supporters, they can also deny it is true quite easily because of the mess of information, and because any position can be supported in information society – including positions which support any presidential overthrow of term limits. Likewise, as I have argued elsewhere on this blog, the information groups we belong to limit our access to disapproved-of-information and tie the information we accept to those we identify with so that information received and accepted becomes a matter of identity. In this situation, people who support, or oppose the President are less likely to have the full arguments of the ‘other group’ presented to them, and most likely dismiss them without understanding them. This is part of the way we come to know things.
President Trump also intensifies the patterns employed by previous Presidents to bolster power-concentrating conventions and precedents. He is part of a trend which helps him. He has continued deepening ‘the swamp’ of corporate interest, and governing according to those financial interests. He openly encourages corporations to pollute and poison people in the name of economic prosperity. He breaks treaties, and threatens war, by himself without consultation with Congress. His followers do not appear to expect him to tell the truth to the people, to conduct a remotely civil debate, or to refrain from multiple adultery and sexual assault. And so on.
The conventions have changed, and the sources of information the President’s supporters are repeatedly exposed to, have changed as part of this change. The lack of civility which the President encourages, also encourages the sharp separation of information groups, and the unlikelihood of his supporters or opponents getting information presented to them neutrally.
Within this kind of context, can we assume that if Trump did declare martial law, or claim a third term (perhaps because a winning Democrat had accepted help from Russia, had a sex scandal, or committed massive financial fraud that disqualified them from office), can we guarantee that fellow Republicans, judges and officials would not support him and would not denounce those opposed to this move as traitors, communists, or even terrorists? Would they absolutely not talk about armed insurrection if they were losing, or using the army to suppress dissent if they were winning? Would they not have the support of large swathes of the generally pro-Republican media? Especially after a few well placed threats? Would they not claim that violent neo-fascists who might go around beating up opponents were innocent, patriots, or just people fed up with the ‘deep state’? Would the institutions which support the conventional meaning and knowledge of the constitution, stand up for those meanings and knowledges against the direct instruction of politically appointed directors? Could they organize themselves effectively, or would they collapse in confusion and multi-directional impulses or internal dispute, which have resulted from the political discourse that splits the country?
I’m not sure whether any of this is possible or not. It would be nice to think it is all rubbish, but events suggest the US would not have that much further to go before it became possible, and then possible and acceptable, almost no matter who was President, and that the country and its institutions are heading in that direction, slowly and almost imperceptibly to most US citizens.
People can acclimatize to anything, given enough time, and the argument that President Trump is stupid, misses the fact that ignorance is not stupidity, and he has years of successful self-promotion behind him. He may have a limited set of skills, but they may be exactly what is needed for him to gain a third term if it is possible. He also has incentive to go for a third term because it protects him from prosecution…
There are plenty of occasions in which people have said that something could not happen, or would not happen again, just before it happened. Historically dictators have ignored convention, re-interpreted laws, declared states of emergency, got support from other interested factions, conducted massive misinformation campaigns, suppressed dissent, changed the status of knowledge or whatever. It has happened.
It would not seem impossible that Trump could suspend a Constitutional amendment, and that he would received support, rather than face immediate and compelled dismissal. Especially if he and his supporters were prepared to use violence to support their position.
Overconfidence in procedure, convention or knowledge, remains a great way to remain unprepared.