Credit Photograph by RINGO CHIU / AFP / Getty
On December 19th, the five hundred and thirty-eight members of the Electoral College will meet to formally pick the President. Each elector is pledged to support the candidate chosen by his home state’s voters, and by custom this always happens. But this year a few have dissent on the mind. Art Sisneros, a Republican elector from Texas, resigned his appointment rather than vote for Donald Trump. Two Democratic electors, Bret Chiafolo, of Washington, and Michael Baca, of Colorado, have launched a campaign to convince electors of both parties to abandon their pledges and instead vote for a moderate Republican—they have suggested Mitt Romney, John Kasich, or Colin Powell. “This is about trying to stop Donald Trump,” Baca has said. Baca and Chiafolo have found five backers for their plan, but all are Democrats, which means that their movement hasn’t at all dented Trump’s three hundred and two electoral votes. And so they have been met with a collective eye roll.
On Wednesday, at a press conference in Olympia, a nineteen-year-old woman named Levi Guerra announced that she would be the seventh elector to join Baca and Chiafolo’s cause. The press conference was small, and Guerra’s tone winsome and patriotic. She said that she had “promised those who elected me that I would do everything I could to keep Donald Trump out of office,” and that she intended to honor that pledge. She seemed to want to project her own gravity onto her generation. “I’m only nineteen,” Guerra said, “and this is my first time being involved in politics, but I hope that my willingness to put my country before my party will show that my generation cares about America.”
The press has referred to Baca and Chiafolo’s group as “faithless electors,” which is unlikely to win them any new converts. They briefly preferred “moral electors,” which suggested a prim, Episcopalian orientation, before settling on “Hamilton electors,” to highlight the Founding Father’s belief that the Electoral College might serve as a bulwark against the excesses of direct democracy. With such a safeguard, “talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union,” Alexander Hamilton wrote, in Federalist No. 68. Given our present predicament, you have to admit that this is pretty sharp of Hamilton to have anticipated, and of Baca, Chiafolo, and their faction to have flagged.
Hamilton imagined the Electoral College as an institution in which the élite might serve as a fail-safe, but what kind of élite was this? Chiafolo, who works at Microsoft, told Politico that he considers himself “a regular, nerdy dude.” Baca is a graduate student at Northern Arizona University who drives for Uber and Lyft in his spare time. Bob Nemenich, another Hamilton elector, is a math teacher in Colorado Springs. “I’m just an average schmuck,” he told the Colorado Independent.
The great theme of the election was its populist revolt; its governing mystery was which élite the voters were revolting against. “Drain the swamp,” the Trump campaign kept insisting. Then the President-elect installed an economic team drawn heavily from Goldman Sachs. You might say that Trump’s target was not the American élite but, more narrowly, the political class, except that he has announced he will install Elaine Chao, a former Bush official who is married to the Senate Majority Leader, in his cabinet; or the media and coastal élites, except that he and his family are so obviously among them. The establishment is not a monolith; it is more fragmented and contested than that, so much so that a much-mocked billionaire real-estate developer and a millionaire nationalist Goldman Sachs executive can consider themselves outsiders, and that can be at once completely plausible and not plausible at all.
Within the expressive bursts of populism since the Tea Party revolt of 2010, there has been a pining earnestness. The ordinary people of the Tea Party movement clutched pocket copies of the U.S. Constitution, and so did Ammon Bundy, and so did Khizr Khan. The Occupy and Sanders revolutionaries recited arcana about the Glass-Steagall Act, and the Black Lives Matter protests included sideline teach-ins about why so many street names and municipal statutes celebrated Confederate heroes. One way to view these events is that they have set new élites among the old ones, the new ones formed by an outsider keenness to be involved. It seems fitting that the last drama of the 2016 election would feature, as a protagonist, a mid-twenties Uber and Lyft driver defending the sanctity of international treaties. “We cannot just rip up the Paris climate accords,” Baca said. The political establishment is dead. Long live the political establishment.