The Electoral College Can and Must Stop Donald Trump

by Evan Edwards


Before getting to the argument for why the electoral college should reject Donald Trump on December 19th, let me begin with that which now seems to be more and more dangerous to risk: a bit of reasoning. What I want to establish, right off the bat, is why it is right to at least consider the possibility of putting someone else in the Oval Office; only after that can we begin to consider why it is right to actually do so.

We begin with two options with respect to the authority of the electoral college: either we accept it or reject it. If we reject it, then Clinton wins the election. By a long shot. The latest tally puts her ahead of Trump by at least 2.8 million votes, which makes this year’s outcome “the biggest gap between the popular vote and the electoral college in almost a century and a half.” As Atlantic author Ronald Brownstein put it, Trump “is on track to lose the popular vote by more than any successfully elected president ever.” But the question of whether or not we should change the way that elections work is one that we need to return to down the road. There is no reasonable situation in which between now and January 20th, the electoral college is be abolished and popular sovereignty is established through direct election. Since that is the case, let us, like Socrates in the Crito, “honor the decisions the polis makes,” and also its laws.

If we accept that the electoral college is what ultimately decides the highest office, then we have two further options: the college either votes with the dictates of tradition, choosing Trump, or it chooses otherwise, and rejects him in favor of someone else. There’s no reason not to do the latter, since there is no provision or law requiring that voters in the electoral college vote the way that their states did. It is, as I just said, simply traditional to do so. Trump’s campaign, and his followers, argue that to do so would be to “reject the will of the people.” But what “people” are they talking about? Does “the people” mean everyone in the nation or just a select subset? If it is the former, then to accept Trump would, in fact, be against the will of the people, since he did not win the vote of most actual people. They must mean, then, some other kind of “people.” We’ll come back to this.

Trump and his supporters’ claim to legitimacy rests on two assumptions. First, that their conception of “the people” is more legitimate than concrete, living human beings. Second, that decision by electoral college, rather than popular vote, is right. Now, if Trump is correct, and decision by electoral college is right, then whatever decision they make is right. If it weren’t, then it would not have authority to make decisions either way. Trump hopes that they will choose him, but this isn’t an inevitability.

When the electoral college system was put in place, it was because the founding fathers wanted to establish an electoral system in which a group of informed, responsible individuals take the input of the people, and then make a final decision as to whom ought to be made president. Now that the electors have been chosen by the popular vote, it is up to them to make the final decision. So, if Trump’s argument for political legitimacy rests on the legitimacy of the electoral college, then if the electoral college were to reject Trump, then if he were to reject their decision as illegitimate, he is in effect claiming that his original claim to legitimacy was ill-founded.

Let me put it another way. The question ultimately comes down to that of sovereignty. In this context, sovereignty means the ability to make the final, ultimate, and binding decision about who ought to be in the Oval Office. We have, it seems, two options here: either it is “the people” or it is the electoral college. If it is the former, then the electoral college’s legitimacy—that is, what makes us take their decision as right—is grounded in its direct conformity to the popular will, which can only be concretely discerned by popular vote and mass demonstrations. If it is the latter, then the decision of the electoral college is independent of the “will of the people,” even if the two have in almost all cases—except the elections of 1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000—run parallel to one another. That is to say, that if sovereign decision ultimately rests in the hands of the electoral college, then it is as if it is just by chance that the two coincide in most cases, a correlative relation and not a causal one.

Before moving on, I just want to recap the arguments made above. First, any of Trump’s claims to legitimacy grounded in the “will of the people” are poor claims unless he means not “all people,” but a particular subset of the people. That is, to reject a rejection by the electoral college based on the idea that they are “subverting the will of the people” is bad reasoning. If this is the case, then Trump’s claim must be grounded in another claim: that popular vote is completely disconnected from the decision of the electoral college, which is what ultimately makes the sovereign decision. Which leads to my second point: if independent of—and in spite of—the “will of the people” Trump believes that the decision of the electoral college is legitimate, then if they were to put someone else in the White House, then he ought to have no recourse to popular decision to argue against their decision. Which leads to the ultimate point I would like to make: if Trump did accept popular decision as ultimately what is sovereign (i.e. as what gives the electoral college legitimacy), then he would have a case against a revolt in the electoral college; but, if this was the case, then he would in fact not have a good argument, since the only evidence of popular sovereignty he could point to would be the popular vote, which is overwhelmingly against him. He must, therefore, think sovereignty lies in the electoral college itself, and therefore, must accept their decision if they reject him.

Now, this doesn’t mean that he will do this since he seems to accept no argument from rational premises. Nevertheless, this is a good argument to be made for the actual legitimacy of a revolt in the electoral college. Now that it is clear why this could happen, we ought to consider why it should happen.

When Trump won the November election, I was distraught, angry, scared, etc. and although I did not myself hold the opinion that we should “wait and see” how he would govern, I did not yet have any grounds other than his campaign rhetoric to make this case, and therefore accepted that those who said this had, in a broad sense, a legitimate reason to do so. We could, of course, point to any number of ridiculous and dangerous things he has done in the last month (Twitter scandals, questionable or outright criminal phone calls, his quiet and questionable settling of a fraud case out of court, his apparent inability to separate himself from his businesses, the connections to Russia that have come to light, the list literally goes on and on), but these are still, in the eyes of his followers and in the eyes of moderates still “waiting to see,” not damning enough. What has he done that is damning enough to consider rejecting his presidency in the electoral college? If nothing else, his pending cabinet appointments. If Trump is a smokescreen, a dumber Bush, then his cabinet is a fire waiting to reduce America to cinders, a more insidious Cheney.

Let’s review just several of the individuals whom he has put forth so far, as well as what their history and platforms suggest they will do.

  • Andrew Puzder, Secretary of Labor. Puzder, who was an advisor to Mitt Romney several years ago, is the CEO of the parent company of fast food chains Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s. He is an outspoken opponent of raising the minimum wage, of expanding eligibility of overtime pay, and has praised his company’s practice of exploiting scantily clad women for advertisements as being “very American.” At a time when the nationwide movement for an increase in minimum wage is making strides toward a livable situation for working class people, Puzder seems to be a last ditch attempt to protect corporations and strike back against the middle and lower classes fighting for their fair share of our nation’s enormous wealth. If you take an optimistic view, Trump won this election because of his appeal to working class Americans, but as labor holds smaller and smaller shares of income, we should want a secretary who is committed to creating a better situation for workers, not one who has a track record of shutting them out of the conversation and keeping them in substandard living conditions. Puzder is evidence that Trump’s conception of “the people” does not coincide with the mass of people working paycheck to paycheck in this country, but with a small subset of rich individuals like himself.
  • Scott Pruitt, Head of the EPA. Pruitt, the Attorney General of Oklahoma, is a longtime opponent of the protection of the environment. He is an ally of the oil industry, a denier of scientific consensus on human caused climate change, and, perhaps most importantly, is currently involved in a lawsuit suing the very agency he is slated to head. Environmental collapse is accelerating, we surpassed the 400 ppm mark for CO2 levels this year permanently, and U.S. citizens’ belief in climate change is at an eight year high. Choosing Pruitt for EPA head is, as the Sierra Club said this week, “like putting an arsonist in charge of fighting fires.” Not only is it poor policy—and potentially a path to inalterable climate change—it is just more evidence that Trump’s conception of “the people” is not the mass of Americans (at least 64% of Americans don’t agree with Pruitt’s stance on climate change), but the very rich who will continue to benefit from the continued use of fossil fuels and the stripping away of laws protecting our planet.
  • Betsy DeVos, Secretary of Education. DeVos, who has never worked in the public sector, is an opponent of public education who has spent millions of dollars in a push to divert taxpayer dollars away from public schools and toward religious and private education. Although the dissolution of public education is a crisis that has been happening in slow motion for at least the last 16 years, DeVos is clear indication that the trend away from free public education and toward private, for-profit education will be the policy of the Trump administration. Despite what DeVos and other proponents of private education claim, public schools continue to outperform private schools and contribute to a greater ability to interact with and understand children from different backgrounds. Private education, the policy that Trump’s administration under DeVos no doubt intends to pursue, is only better than public education at one thing, according to University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Gloria Ladson-Briggs, and that is “the opportunity to put your kids around kids who have parents who have some similar values and conceptions.” Private education, in other words, does not contribute to the existence of a multi-cultural society, but one that separates people of different economic, racial, cultural, and religious backgrounds. Which is to say, it does not benefit “the people,” unless one conceives of the people as insular, separate, and necessarily segregated.
  • Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Secretary of the Interior. Like Pruitt, McMorris Rodgers is a denier of scientific consensus on human caused climate change and intends to carry out the Trump administration’s policy of pursuing “the production of [fossil fuels] by opening onshore and offshore leasing on federal lands and waters.” Although Trump has said that he wants to keep certain parts of the country under federal control to “keep them great,” McMorris Rodgers voted for a GOP bill that would allow the sale of public lands to mining companies. She also has said, with respect to the protection of American wild places, that by “removing lands from private ownership — and thus, from the local municipal tax rolls – the government stifles locally-driven development and makes rural communities more dependent on Washington, DC.” That is, she is opposed to the great American tradition of protecting wild places for the enjoyment of all citizens. When Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, and even Gifford Pinchot engaged in debates about how best to pursue the experimental idea of public land preservation, one thing they all agreed on was that all policies should be oriented toward the interests of all Americans, for all time. McMorris Rodgers and her opposition to nationally protected parts of the interior is, once again, evidence that Trump’s “people” are not people, but private companies and the rich who own them.
  • Ben Carson, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Carson, who less than a month ago rejected another position in Trump’s cabinet because he “has no government experience,” does not support government programs such as Section 8 and has said that it is not the government’s job to take care of the poor, but rather the job of church groups and self-started community initiatives. I expect that by “community initiatives” he does not mean the Black Panthers. Instead “we the people,” he said, “have the responsibility to take care of the indigent in our society.” This is a noble claim, I suppose, but what does it mean for him to be in a position to decide on policy in urban areas? We can only imagine him as a sleepy looking Ron Swanson as head of HUD.
  • Jeff Sessions, Attorney General. Sessions, a man who thirty years ago was rejected from a federal position for calling the NAACP, the ACLU, and MLK Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Council “un-American,” presided over a case that allegedly was “aimed at intimidating black voters,” and once claimed that the KKK were good people until he found out that they smoked pot. This all seems to be in line with Trump’s own position on voting rights. This was, after all, the first election without the protections of the voting rights act since it was established in 1965. Voting in this election was at an all time low, even though it was touted as the most important election of all time. Critics suggest that this is at least in part because of the policies enacted by Republicans to suppress minority voter turnout by exploiting the loss of the act. It has always been the case that when voter turnout is low, white male Republicans win elections, and Sessions is an indicator that Trump hopes to continue taking advantage of that fact. Once again, it seems that the Trump team’s conception of “the people” is limited and exclusionary.

Two themes emerge when we look at these few proposed appointments. First, as I made clear in each case, what Trump understands to be “the people,” and subsequently what he understands to be “the will of the people,” is not congruent in any way with the actual population of the country. It is, depending on which position you consider, largely associated with corporations, the fossil fuel industry, and the section of the white population that would like to be a nation apart from the rising population of people of color. Second, every single one of these appointments are opposed in principle to the sectors of government they are supposed to head up. In other words, the stated purpose of all of these individuals is to eliminate governmental involvement in all significant aspects of American life.

Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, has described himself as a Leninist. He doesn’t mean that he is a Communist committed to the people’s revolution. Instead, he says the following: “Lenin,” he answered, “wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.” It looks like he will get his wish, if the electoral college does not reject Trump. The dissolution of the federal government that Trump’s proposed cabinet will carry out is one that is not oriented toward making the people free to live their lives. That is, unless “the people” signifies what Trump believes it does: not a return of power to “the people,” but a continuation of the trend made most visible by cases like Citizens United vs. FEC, which ceded influence over government to not only private, but profit-driven entities.

In effect, Trump’s cabinet picks show that he wants to create a paradise for business owners, for capitalists, at the expense of every public institution and safety net that the people have been fighting for since the establishment of this nation. That is, the creation of a state that is no state, but a kind of anarcho-capitalist Eden. Whether he can achieve it if confirmed by the college is open to debate. We do theoretically have a system of checks and balances, after all. But we have to ask whether the Republican controlled House, Senate, and the (soon to be) predominantly conservative Supreme Court will be much of a check on Trump and his cabinet of curiosities.

Even if, by some miracle, his appointments do not secure the confirmation they require, the initial decisions clearly demonstrate the kind of administration that Trump would like to establish. It seems that each successive pick is one that aims to dismantle the rule of law in favor of the rule of profit, and thereby, of power. The whole situation reminds me more, with each passing day, of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo, in which a Duke in Fascist Italy says that “We Fascists are the only true anarchists, naturally, once we're masters of the state. In fact, the one true anarchy is that of power.”

So what are we to do? For one, we could encourage college electors to become “faithless.” There is, as this link shows, a long tradition of a few people defecting from their party. That is, in the past, electors have made symbolic defections in order to vote their conscience against a president they believe will fail the nation. These are exceptional cases, but if enough electors in this exceptional election do defect, it could mean that Trump gets trumped. See this page for information on how that can happen. If you’ve read this far, you there behind the glass, on the other side of the screen, then you care enough about our future to do something about it. Get involved.

If Trump does end up being president, however, then we must recall that, as Rebecca Solnit wrote with respect to the Bush administration (emphasis slightly altered), “the fate of the world” during the next four years will not be the result of “the will of the people of the United States, though perhaps” it will be “due to our lack of will to resist” this “slow-motion coup.”