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John C. Danforth: There is nothing conservative about Trump’s attack on the election

John C. Danforth: There is nothing conservative about Trump’s attack on the election

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The Ever Present Presidency

Donald Trump speaks during the final day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on July 21, 2016.

For the good of our party and, more importantly, for the good of America, we Republicans must decouple ourselves from Donald’s Trump bandwagon, which is now in the ditch.

Having lost the election by more than 5 million popular votes, and after a 2016 deficit of nearly 3 million votes, Trumpism is not a template for future electoral success. If we stay on our present course, we would be able to hang on as a regional party, but we would never again be a national party.

More important than partisan necessity, we must disengage from Trump because America needs a principled conservative party. Trump’s claim that the election was stolen is the opposite of conservatism and the opposite of an effort to preserve and protect our constitutional system of government. It is an attack on our government — and a reckless and highly destructive one at that.

As Karl Rove, keeper of the Republican brain trust, has written, Trump’s challenges to the election “are not enough to change the final outcome.” With no possibility of retaining the White House, the only purpose served by insisting that the election was fraudulent is to undermine Joe Biden’s presidency. Delegitimizing the presidency and the election that produced it violates the most essential principle of conservatism.

The essence of conservatism is more than agreement on a list of positions on which all of us agree, such as limited taxes and spending and a strong national defense. It is commitment to defending the constitutional order. We often call ourselves constitutional conservatives, for that is what we are. We champion the structural balance of power with three branches of government, each exercising its assigned responsibilities. This is why we feel so strongly about nominations to the Supreme Court. We insist that decisions on public policy must be made by the legislative and executive branches, not by the judiciary, which should limit itself to interpreting the Constitution and statutes as written.

Undermining the legitimacy of the presidency violates the constitutional order and contradicts the essence of conservatism.

It might be argued that attacking a presidency as illegitimate is just what the Democrats did to Trump. This is true. Since the day of his election, Democrats have made it their business to destroy the legitimacy of Trump’s presidency. They called their mission “the resistance.” In order to block his agenda, they brought the Senate to a standstill, adopting the tactic of filibustering even second-tier nominees for positions in the administration. Gridlock wasn’t happenstance. Creating it became their strategy.

Beyond erecting procedural roadblocks, Democrats attacked the foundation of Trump’s election, charging that it had been won with the collusion of Russia. Worst of all, they put him through a prolonged ordeal of an impeachment that had no prospects of going anywhere. In short, the goal of Trump’s opponents was to turn his presidency into a living hell. So it is understandable for Trump and his allies to take the position that turnabout is fair play.

But tempting as it may be to turn the tables on the Democrats, we are not them. We are conservatives, and the paramount duty of conservatives is to guard the constitutional structure of our government. This is the basis of our principled position on the role of the courts, and it must be our principled position on the office of president.

On assuming federal office, members of Congress and all appointed positions take an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” For conservatives, this is more than the sworn duty of people who hold public office. It is the responsibility of all of us.

During the Biden presidency, we will have every opportunity to oppose his policies when we think they are misguided and to offer our own alternatives. The Constitution we defend guarantees just that. But vigorously differing on questions of policy is very different from intentionally destroying the structure in which policy is made. The spurious assertion that the election was stolen is a direct attack on our constitutional structure.

It is the opposite of conservative. It is radical.

John C. Danforth, a Republican, represented Missouri in the U.S. Senate for three terms.

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