Donald Trump, Election Fraud, and Cato’s Letters

A recent social media post by former U.S. President Donald Trump called for the termination of the U.S. Constitution, or parts thereof, giving new meaning to cancel culture. The post brought to mind a passage from Cato’s Letters.

On Dec. 3, 2022, Trump wrote on his social media platform Truth Social,

So, with the revelation of MASSIVE & WIDESPREAD FRAUD & DECEPTION in working closely with Big Tech Companies, the DNC, & the Democrat Party, do you throw the Presidential Election Results of 2020 OUT and declare the RIGHTFUL WINNER, or do you have a NEW ELECTION? A Massive Fraud of this type and magnitude allows for the termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution. Our great “Founders” did not want, and would not condone, False & Fraudulent Elections!

Now let’s rewind to the early 1720s. John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon wrote a series of weekly essays for the London Journal using the pen name Cato (in honor of Cato the Younger’s opposition to Julius Caesar). The essays were eventually compiled into a four-volume set first published in 1724 as Cato’s Letters. The essays were widely read in the American colonies. In fact, Clinton Rossiter, a historian and political scientist, noted that Cato’s Letters was “the most popular, quotable, esteemed source of political ideas in the colonial period.”

Trump’s assertion that established rules should be terminated or temporarily suspended called to mind Cato’s letter 115 (Feb. 9, 1723):

We know, by infinite examples and experience, that men possessed of power, rather than part with it, will do any thing, even the worst and the blackest, to keep it; and scarce ever any man upon earth went out of it as long as he could carry every thing his own way in it. ... This seems certain, that the good of the world, or of their people, was not one of their motives either for continuing in power, or for quitting it.

It is the nature of power to be ever encroaching, and converting every extraordinary power, granted at particular times, and upon particular occasions, into an ordinary power, to be used at all times, and when there is no occasion; nor does it ever part willingly with any advantage. ... [W]hen the people have done with their magistrates, their magistrates will not have done with the people. ...

Back to Trump. To be clear, there is nothing in the Constitution that says, or even hints, that the appropriate remedy for actual (or imaginary) federal election fraud is to install the second-place candidate as president or to install anyone for that matter. It is doubtful that many Americans would support such a system going forward, regardless of Trump’s desire to acquire power by extra-constitutional means.

Regarding Trump’s call for a “new election” to remedy federal election fraud, “No state or county has ever held a presidential redo election,” according to Ballotpedia. Many legal scholars argue that Article II of the Constitution prevents a revote in a presidential election. It is unclear, but perhaps Trump believes Article II should be suspended to allow for a do-over.

When presidential election results have been contested, courts have allowed targeted recounts or ballot challenges to proceed, typically when the number of disputed votes is enough to potentially change the outcome of an election. This surgical approach to remediation has won the favor of courts and the American people, and Trump’s legal team pursued it in many states following the 2020 presidential election.

In an attempt to walk back his comment on “termination of all rules, regulations, and articles” after it was met with much criticism, even by members of the Republican Party, Trump then posted on Dec. 5, 2022,

What I said was that when there is “MASSIVE & WIDESPREAD FRAUD & DECEPTION,” as has been irrefutably proven in the 2020 Presidential Election, steps must be immediately taken to RIGHT THE WRONG.

Again, to be clear, Trump declaring that there was “massive & widespread fraud” does not make it so. And fraud was not “irrefutably proven”—quite the contrary.

Trump’s experienced legal team and allied groups filed 65 lawsuits alleging election fraud or irregularities. At least 86 judges reviewed the evidence, including 38 judges appointed by Republicans and at least six appointed by Trump himself. All but one lawsuit was unsuccessful (a minor lawsuit in Pennsylvania was initially successful but later overturned by the state Supreme Court).

Even Trump’s former Attorney General William Barr called the various election claims by Trump’s legal team “bullshit,” “completely bullshit,” “absolute rubbish,” “idiotic,” “bogus,” “stupid,” “crazy,” “crazy stuff,” “complete nonsense,” and “a great grave disservice to the country.” Perhaps most damning, Barr noted, “There was never an indication of interest in what the actual facts were” by Trump.

Echoing Cato’s letter 115 from 300 years ago, U.S. District Court Judge David Carter labeled various nefarious schemes advanced by Trump and his lawyer John Eastman as “a coup in search of a legal theory” and “desperation to win at all costs.”

In an ironic twist, Donald Trump has called for canceling the Constitution to remedy his perceived grievances. However, overturning a fully adjudicated election and ending the peaceful transition of power, perhaps permanently, is a bridge too far for most Americans.

Like many Trump supporters, I, too, would like to see a realignment of power between the people and governments at all levels (especially the federal government). We might disagree about what changes are needed. Thankfully we inherited a founding document that can be amended using four different methods, two of which essentially bypass the U.S. Congress. My advice is to follow the Framers’ example: Make your case for needed amendments and reforms, put them down on paper, and convince people that your ideas are worthy of adoption.

Lawrence J. McQuillan is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Entrepreneurial Innovation at the Independent Institute. He is the author of the Independent book California Dreaming.
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