In the early years of the Obama era, then-Sen. Jim DeMint embodied a series of contradictions in the American character.
The hard-jawed and bitter-faced South Carolinian was simultaneously a theocrat, a cynic and a salesman. What he sold, as salvation, was hate and fear. He realized before the rest of us that it does not matter what politicians say or do, as long as they can demonize their enemies, turning them into villains that the American people can love to hate.
DeMint came from the fundamentalist, mill-village town of Greenville, nestled in the piedmont at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, not far from the North Carolina border. BMW and Michelin have recently turned the town into a somewhat more cosmopolitan place. But 20 years ago—when I finally escaped—it was a town that produced dire, dour and yet grimly visionary people, a severe, joyless place whose preachers obsessed over hell fire and the enjoyable things other people may be doing to hasten it.
DeMint galvanized the Tea Party with this shtick, but he could only take it so far: It was a little too grim for the American Sucker. DeMint played the part like a great character actor—Harry Dean Stanton playing Ronald Reagan. Trump came along and brought a little P.T. Barnum to the act, taking DeMint’s gruesome view of America at war with itself and carnivalizing the carnage, in the same way televangelists like Jimmy Swaggart made the hell-fire sermons they heard in small Southern churches palatable to the masses on television.
“The bigger government gets, the smaller God gets,” DeMint said in a radio appearance in 2011. Trump echoed this in May when he told a crowd at the fundamentalist Liberty University, “In America, we don’t worship government; we worship God.”
Perhaps DeMint was savvy enough to know he would do better as a vicar or an éminence grise, providing ideas to the crown rather than being the front man: The Greenville in him was still a little too mirthless to break through to the next level. He left the Senate on Jan. 1, 2013, to take over the ultra-conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation.
During last year’s presidential election, the foundation remained largely silent on Trump, putting DeMint in a perfect position to help guide the seemingly shocked and ill-prepared transition team. It provided policy papers, personnel and a list of Supreme Court nominees, deeply influencing the beginning of the Trump era.
So it was a shocker—and sort of admirable—when the Heritage board ousted DeMint in May, with influential members arguing he had dulled the intellectual edge of the foundation by making it too activist.
After his Heritage ouster, the former senator went to work for the Convention of States Project. This is a group that wants to invoke Article V of the Constitution to call for a convention to amend the Constitution.
Article V outlines two ways to add an amendment to the Constitution—and one of them has never been successfully employed before. Each of the 27 existing amendments has been proposed by two-thirds of both houses of Congress and ratified by three-fourths of the states. In the other way, two-thirds of the legislatures of the states can “call a convention for proposing amendments.”
The conventional, previously used way is politically impossible at present, and to a man like DeMint, undesirable. But the alternate way, relying on the states as it does, is almost too perfect an ideological vehicle. DeMint calls the Convention of States the next stage of the Tea Party, which wanted to limit federal power. It makes ideological sense for him to latch onto state legislatures’ ability to change the Constitution to limit federal power.
But the crazy thing: It might actually be possible. Two-thirds of 50 is 34. That’s how many state legislatures would have to request a convention. Republicans hold both houses in 32 states. If a convention relying on state legislatures would ever work for the right, it would now.
Twelve states have already requested a convention to amend the Constitution. Over the last few weeks, DeMint was lobbying hard in North Carolina to make it the 13th. It passed the Senate, and failed in the House, which later voted to reconsider it.
One of the big problems is the possibility of a “runaway convention.” The Convention of States argues that such a convention could be limited to a single topic: limiting federal control. But because a constitutional convention has never happened, no one knows how it will go.
As for the desire of DeMint and his crew to limit federal control: They want to institute congressional and Supreme Court term limits; mandate a balanced budget; and eliminate federal regulations. While it seems like such a focus may be opposed to the Trump regime, it fits in perfectly with its stated goal of the “deconstruction of the administrative state,” as Steve Bannon put it.
And Trump’s new voter commission—headed up by Kris Kobach, a dour Kansas extremist who is the perfect DeMint counterpart—might make the possibility of a new states-driven, conservative-leaning constitutional convention even more likely. The Trump/Kobach commission is requiring states to give voter data to the federal government (although many have refused), claiming, sans any evidence, that widespread voter fraud cost Trump the popular vote. Many fear there is an alternative motive to this data collection—namely, that it will be used to further restrict voting.
The state-level dominance that Republicans presently enjoy is due in large part to gerrymandering, and successful attempts to limit the votes of minorities and others who might vote Democrat. (The pusillanimous posturing of the Democrats doesn’t help.) If they are further able to control the turnout, Republicans will be more likely to gain even more states, increasing the likelihood of a constitutional convention.
The contradiction gives yet another glimpse into today’s so-called conservative movement, and is reminiscent of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ own hypocrisy—he claims to be pro-states’ rights, but is rejecting state decisions to legalize cannabis and is trying to force states to comply with big-government mandatory minimum sentencing. Conservatives are speaking out of both sides of their mouths, saying they want to strip power from the federal government, but using the federal government’s power to do so, by first attacking citizens’ voting rights.
Democracy in Crisis is a joint project of alternative newspapers around the country, including the Coachella Valley Independent. Baynard Woods is editor at large at the Baltimore City Paper. Send tips to email@example.com. Twitter @demoincrisis. Podcast every Thursday at www.democracyincrisis.com.