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Commentary: Fealty to obsolete rules has wrought Trump

By Josh Gohlke India's profusion of arbitrary and lightly enforced rules, I learned during visits, is rivaled by Indians' imperviousness to them; evidence of mass disregard, such as the small crowd I saw seated comfortably around a "No Sitting" sign, is common

India's profusion of arbitrary and lightly enforced rules, I learned during visits, is rivaled by Indians' imperviousness to them; evidence of mass disregard, such as the small crowd I saw seated comfortably around a "No Sitting" sign, is common. Noticing I was dutifully obeying a Mumbai museum's stated photography ban, an in-law who was born and raised in the country made it clear that if I did not defiantly take every photo I wanted, he would commandeer my camera and do it for me. Such rules were for chumps, I came to understand, and my relative was not having a chump in the family.

This was a liberating lesson for me. As an American, I tend to obey if not revere rules, and despite our national mythos of rebellion, I'm not an anomaly. Even stupid instructions give Americans pause in a way that is foreign to countries lacking our faith in the possibility of regulation.

This culminates in our worship of that great American rulebook, the Constitution. Of course, for all our appropriate adulation of the founding document's farsightedness, we do recognize that it contains a good bit of garbage.

Don't we?

Perhaps not, judging by the way we awaited the latest depredations of one of the Constitution's most absurd contrivances, the Electoral College.

The America that greeted our strange new millennium can be forgiven for having been blindsided by George W. Bush's Electoral College victory despite a popular-vote deficit of about half a million. Back in 2000, that hadn't happened in more than a century, and anyone inconsolably outraged by the 1888 election of popular-vote loser Benjamin Harrison had managed to get over it by being dead.

Just four elections later, though, Donald Trump has managed a robust electoral win while suffering a resounding popular loss. Hillary Clinton's lead stands at more than 2.8 million votes, or 2.1 percentage points, according to the Cook Political Report, beating not just Al Gore's margin but also John F. Kennedy's in 1960, Richard Nixon's in 1968, and Jimmy Carter's in 1976.

For the second time in four elections, then, a nation that styles itself as a beacon of democracy is not awarding its highest office to the candidate who got the most votes. The election might as well have been decided by a coin toss.

None of this is meant to suggest that Trump's undemocratic victory ought to be undone. Yes, millions have petitioned the Electoral College, whose members cast their own votes next week, to unilaterally overturn the result, and a few may well try - such "faithless electors" being another disturbingly consistent quirk of the college. But encouraging electoral freelancing would only further empower a misbegotten institution.

What this latest unpopular election does show is that our democracy was sick well before this grinding contest between two widely despised contenders yielded the most inexperienced leader in our history. A chief symptom was its failure to fix a structural flaw even when confronted with its consequences and given 15 years to do something - anything - about it.

Instead, we have the latest belated congressional proposals to drop out of the college, which probably won't escape committee, much less come anywhere near the Constitution. Although Congress has produced "at least 700" attempts to reform the Electoral College, according to FairVote, none has gone anywhere since the '70s.

It seems the college has acquired a degree of unearned veneration despite its tainted origins, which tie it to an even more abhorrent constitutional chimera, the compromise that allowed the Southern states to count each slave as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of congressional representation. Because each state gets as many electoral votes as members of Congress, the college enabled the future Confederacy to derive power from its enslaved population in presidential elections.

As James Madison delicately put it during the Constitutional Convention, "The right of suffrage was much more diffusive in the Northern than the Southern states," and the Electoral College "obviated this difficulty." But the father of the Constitution was never very comfortable with the construct, also noting in Philadelphia that he thought the presidency best decided by "the people at large."

Another founder, Alexander Hamilton, looked on the same constitutional concoction and preposterously called it "if .. not perfect . . . at least excellent" - possibly because he was at that point selling the Constitution to the public. The electors threatening an anti-Trump insurgency call themselves "Hamilton Electors" because of the future Broadway star's assertion that the college would preclude "any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications" from seizing the presidency through "talents for low intrigue and the little arts of popularity."

Casual students of recent history will note - a few rebel electors notwithstanding - that the Electoral College is about to produce precisely what Hamilton promised it would prevent.

The framers' device was in fact so far short of "excellent" that it lasted little more than a decade before they altered it with the 12th Amendment. And yet earnest arguments for its timeless wisdom persist.

While I have occasionally resolved to be "more Indian" about the manifestly silly rules that surround us - 11 a.m. hotel checkouts, say, or Pennsylvania liquor laws - Americans' faith in the rule of law is a virtue. What we seem to have lost is a corresponding ability to constructively debate and alter those laws whose flaws have become obvious.

Four years ago, apparently in the mistaken belief that President Obama might lose the popular vote but win reelection, Donald Trump called the Electoral College a "disaster for democracy." Last month, in the wake of his own victory, he declared it "actually genius."

Our foolish service to obsolete rules has elevated a man with no use for rules except insofar as they serve him. To Trump, the rules are for us - the chumps.

Josh Gohlke is a former Inquirer editor.