Monday, December 19, 2016

Richard II, Donald Trump, and the Electoral College

Richard II
Shakespeare's play Richard II is about what in Shakespeare's day would have been an impossible dilemma -- what if the lawful and legitimate king is utterly unfit for the job?  No one doubts that Richard II is the lawful king.  Yet he had bankrupted England with his extravagance, connived in the murder of his uncle, seized another uncle's estate to enrich himself, and banished his cousin to prevent him from challenging this action.  I belong to a Shakespeare discussion group in which it was explained why seizing the uncle's estate was a very serious matter.  It means that property is merely held at the king's whim instead of by law.  All the great lords turn against the king for fear of being next in line.  And it is not just the great lords who are affected.  Medieval society was based on a whole series of oaths of fealty between superior and inferior.  In seizing his uncle's estate, Richard has foisted a new lord on all his subordinates and thrown all their orderly ties, rights, and obligations into upheaval.  In short, he is abandoning the rule of law for the rule of caprice.

I first saw the play as a teen when the BBC was putting on a whole series of Shakespeare plays.  It was revealing to me in showing what was meant by the divine rights of kings.  Up till then, I had thought of it as the divine rights of kingship as an institution, or of a particular royal family.  But it never occurred to me that it meant the divine right of a particular individual to be king, which God would uphold against all others, even his royal cousin.  At the same time, I did not believe in the divine rights of kings, and I was young and foolish, with romantic notions that revolutions could fix everything.  The dilemma was not one that I could relate to.

I belong to a Shakespeare reading and discussion group that read Richard II last year in the spring, and this time I looked for a way to relate to the message.  And what I came up with was this.  Having the king's oldest son always succeed him is not a very good system.*  But it was the best system anyone had come up with in Shakespeare's day.  One need only compare England, where the king was always succeeded by his oldest son, the ruler had undisputed legitimacy, and succession was orderly and uncontested, with Turkey, where there was no established rule.  When the Sultan died, his successor was whichever son killed all of his brothers.  If the country was lucky, one of them would move fast and the carnage would be limited to the palace, while everyone else could carry on about their lives.  If the country was unlucky, no one would be fast enough, in which case all the rivals would raise their own armies and civil war would ensue.  To overthrow a legitimate king, no matter how bad, was to overthrow the system of orderly succession, undermine legitimate rule, throw the door open to future usurpation, and invite the Turkish system of succession by war and murder.  In short, it becomes an impossible dilemma when the king is undermining the rule of law, yet to overthrow him is to overthrow the rule of law in the form of orderly succession.

I laid this out on Facebook, and my sister commented:
We don't believe in the divine right but we face similar problems, such as "what if those who choose to run for elected office are selected for by their ability to gather funds or to rile up groups, rather than for their sound beliefs and ability to get them done". There is still no very satisfactory answer.
Well, now we are reading Richard II again (in more detail) and it resonates as never before.  The US has elected a man who I consider a real danger to the rule of law, who lost the popular vote, and who appears to have gotten an assist from an unfriendly foreign power (though without direct complicity on his part).  Yet under the rules of the Electoral College, there is no doubt that his election is lawful. Now there are people attempting to manipulate electors into denying in what is his right by law, though not the will of the people.  Republican Electors have been bombarded with hate mail, harassing phone calls, and even death threats.

Look, I stand second to none in my hatred of Trump.  But these attempts to deny the results of the election, though technically legal (except for the harassment, threats, etc, of course) are out of bounds for a loyal opposition.  Loyal opposition means "acceptance of electoral outcomes in exchange for a chance to regularly compete for political office within formally defined timeframes and under universally competitive rules and conditions."  Trying to persuade the electors to go against their lawful roles and to deliver the election to someone other than the lawful victor is just that.  Yes, I agree that a Trump Presidency threatens to be disastrous.  Yes, I agree, the system is flawed if it allows a candidate to win a comfortable margin in the Electoral College while losing the popular vote by about 2%.  Yes, I agree, it is hypocritical of Trump supporters to be so outraged that Clinton supporters are questioning the outcome of the election when they so often threatened to do just that if Trump lost.  Yes, I agree that Russian meddling in the election is troubling and our allowing Russian meddling is a good deal worse.  But Trump is still the winner by all accepted laws and norms.  To attempt to deny him victory would set off an unprecedented constitutional crisis.  A Trump presidency is merely a probable disaster; to seek to overturn the election is a certain disaster.

And yes, I also agree that the Republicans have spent eight years trying to delegitimize the Obama presidency, just as they tried to delegitimize the Bill Clinton presidency before, and promised to delegitimize the Hillary Clinton presidency if she had won.  And yes, Republicans have violated norm after norm, from abuse of impeachment proceedings, to making the filibuster a routine instrument of legislation, to refusing to confirm any Supreme Court Justice appointed by a Democrat to threatening to default on the national debt unless their program, rejected by voters at the polls, is enacted.  But they have never gone so far as to openly seek to overturn the result of a lawful election for President.

And please consider, anyone who wants to break this norm, what sort of precedent it would set for Republicans the next time they lose.

*We got a look at just how bad a system it can be in Henry VI, when the king died young and his only son was a nine-month-old baby.  Needless to say, having a baby for king caused serious problems.

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