ALBANY — Jim Acker, a University at Albany legal expert, concluded a roundtable discussion about the U.S. Constitution with a question: “Should we leave the room upbeat or woefully depressed?”
Acker, who moderated Monday’s panel at UAlbany — titled Constitution in Crisis — didn’t have to wait long for a response.
“Woefully depressed,” said professor of history Richard Hamm, before adding a note of optimism. “Should you run and hide? No. You should do all you can to be an engaged citizen who believes in the rule of law.”
But the consensus of a trio of UAlbany professors and constitutional specialists Monday was unmistakable: They think President Donald Trump presents an unprecedented threat to the Constitution.
During the panel, held in recognition of Constitution Day, the professors argued Trump has run roughshod over American norms of government, abusing his pardon power, deploying divisive rhetoric and attacking the judiciary.
“We are not in conventional American times, and these are not conventional political actors,” said Julie Novkov, a UAlbany political science professor.
The underlying causes of the country’s current “constitutional moment,” however, cannot all be placed at Trump’s feet, they said. The scholars pointed to congressional dysfunction dating to the 1990s, increasing political polarization and ideological sorting as factors that both contributed to and were exacerbated by Trump’s successful campaign.
“I’m taken aback by President Trump: taken aback by the campaign, taken aback by the election and taken aback by the administration’s actions so far,” political science professor Matthew Ingram said.
He argued the Trump administration was “generating uncertainty, instability and opacity” and could be setting the country on a path toward a government that is “fundamentally exclusive and anti-democratic … that challenges the very spirit of our constitution.”
He highlighted Trump’s commission on voter fraud as an example, saying a request for voter information actually caused some people to unregister to vote.
“They are working on one side to make it harder for people to register, and on the other side, their actions are causing people to unregister,” he said. “Not exactly what we would want to happen.”
The scholars said they were unconvinced the constitutional tools available to remove Trump — impeachment or removal by the cabinet — would be used unless devastating new revelations in the Russia investigation came out or Trump’s approval ratings floundered to around 20 percent for many months.
Novkov said about 25 percent of Americans are Trump’s strongest and most entrenched supporters — “Trumpers,” she called them — and the constituency through which Trump’s actions should be viewed. When Trump says or does something that traditional political observers see as a major misstep or gaffe, she said, he is often making a gesture toward his core supporters.
“For these people, there is no legitimate means by which President Trump can leave office,” she said. “The real question is, how will these people respond when Trump departs?”