Should Donald Trump be disqualified from ever running for president again?

By Laurence Houlgate

Here is a question that should be asked by every philosophy professor in their classroom this term: Should Donald J. Trump be permanently disqualified from holding any office, civil or military, including the office of President?

I ask this question because of a growing debate about whether Section 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution should be used to disqualify the former president from running for the office of President again. Here is the text of Section 3:

No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice-President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof.  But Congress may by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.

The facts about what happened at the U.S. Capitol Building on January 6, 2021, are one thing. The concepts used in Section 3 are quite another.  The question about whether Donald J. Trump should  be disqualified from being President can’t be answered until there is clarity about the meaning of “office,” “oath,” “support,” “Constitution,” “insurrection,” “rebellion,’ “engaging in insurrection or rebellion,” “aid,” “comfort,” “giving aid and comfort,” “enemies,” and “disability.”

As I write this newsletter we are now on the verge of witnessing one of the most consequential events in the history of American law.  There is a high probability that an executive or judicial officer of one or more states will soon announce that their state will not allow Donald J. Trump’s name to be placed on the state’s November 2024 election ballot (Kovinsky and Riga). This will certainly trigger a trip to the U.S. Supreme Court and (perhaps) a decision on the meaning and application of Section 3. 

It is no accident that students who major in philosophy as undergraduates are not only among the largest groups admitted to law schools but they also rank among their best students. I believe this is largely because philosophy students are trained to think logically and critically.  Although philosophy is not informative about the world, it can definitely be informative about the meaning of legal and non-legal concepts used in Section 3.

How will the Supreme Court judges rule?  Will the conservative judges be faithful to the same theory of interpretation (‘originalism’) used in the Dobbs decision about abortion? (“A text in the U.S. Constitution should be interpreted only as it was understood at the time of its adoption.“)

The framers of the 14th Amendment left no instructions for the enforcement of Section 3, although, in 1870, Congress did use its power under Section 5 (“The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article“) to enforce Section 3 through the enactment of the First Ku Klux Clan Act (Zeitz). Notice, however, that Section 5 uses the word ‘shall’, not ‘must’. Where does this leave the Supreme Court if it chooses to interpret Section 3?

Compare Section 3 with the Qualifications Clause in Article II, Section 1, Clause 5 (“The President must be a natural-born citizen, at least thirty-five years of age, and a resident of the United States for at least fourteen years.”). Again, there are no instructions for enforcement. Now assume it is discovered that Donald Trump was born in Ruanda-Urundi. Several states are convinced by this discovery and refuse to put his name on the ballot. Other states are convinced that the ‘discovery’ is a fraud.

Again, how should the Supreme Court settle this dispute? Is there any relevant difference between the Qualifications Clause and Section 3 of the 14th Amendment that should call for enforcement of the latter but not the former? What do you think that a Court dominated by originalist judges would say about this conundrum (if it decides to say anything at all)?

These are questions that philosophy students can and should debate in the classroom as the history of American law unfolds before their very eyes.


Here are six references that professors and students might want to consult:


New Book by Laurence Houlgate, now available on Amazon.

Understanding Philosophy, Third Edition
is a companion to the eight books in the Philosophy Study Guides series (see below). It provides students with the grounding they need to read and better understand the classics of philosophy discussed in the series.

In Part I, the tools of the philosopher are described; for example, distinguishing between deductive and inductive arguments, recognizing valid argument forms, learning how logic and reasoning were used by the great philosophers, studying formal and informal fallacies, and other important distinctions between successes and pitfalls in reasoning.

Part II is about the important distinction, often ignored, between problems of philosophy and problems of science and the different methods used by each. (Hint: Have you ever seen a sign at your university that says “Philosophy Laboratory”? Or a memo that says “Philosophy field trip on Thursday. Sign up now.”?)

Part III provides students with a set of topics suitable for philosophy term papers, a seven-step approach to organizing and writing a paper, and solving a philosophical problem. Chapter 9 in Part III has a sample term paper on a problem that has recently gotten out of hand – and I mean this literally – by transforming a philosophical problem into a science problem. The problem is the age-old question about life after death, and the way it gets transformed is an excellent example of the wide difference between philosophical and scientific problems and methods.

Part IV shows how philosophical problems have been clarified and (sometimes) solved by the great philosophers using ‘reasoning’ (logic) in the analysis of key concepts. Examples of reasoning are taken from the works of Plato, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Rene Descartes, Immanuel Kant, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and John Stuart Mill.

Part V is new. It focuses on four contemporary social issues: artificial intelligence, self-defense laws, offensive speech and behavior, and the current status of American democracy. Although most of these issues are not discussed in most classical works, I show that the methods of the great philosophers are nearly identical to the methods used by contemporary philosophers.
A word about ‘method’. I am using this term as “a way, technique, or process of or for doing something.” (MW). Applied to a philosophical problem, what I want to show beginning philosophy students are the techniques of clarifying and (hopefully) solving a philosophical problem.

I do not want to confuse the ways of doing philosophy with the philosophical debate about ways of knowing. There is an age-old debate between the schools of rationalism and empiricism. Without boring everyone with the details of this debate, I mention it here only because the debate presupposes the use of philosophical method, as described in Part I. Whether you are arguing for one school or the other you must rely on logic and reasoning.

Second, logic and reasoning are built into the definition of ‘philosophy’. Although this word also has several uses, Western philosophers would agree that philosophy is “critical reflection on the justification of basic human beliefs and analysis of basic concepts in terms of which such beliefs are expressed” (Edwards and Pap, xiv). This definition reaches at least as far back as the opening chapters of Plato’s Republic in which Socrates challenges his audience to define the concept of justice. This challenge marks the difference between philosophy and modern science.

And so, the philosopher’s parade that began 2,400 years ago continues to the present day. All you will need to join the parade is a desire to study our basic human beliefs and the concepts in which they have traditionally been expressed.

And since this is a parade of thought not legs, you won’t have to get out of your chair (or go on a field trip).

Finally, each study guide in the series can be purchased separately at

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4 thoughts on “Should Donald Trump be disqualified from ever running for president again?

  1. To me, Plato had already largely settled the dispute: only philosophers should rule.

    This is of course a much more generic answer to a much more detailed question, but to me Trump should not be allowed to be President solely because of his general ignorance, let alone in regard to what has happened at the Capitol. To be fair, this applies to probably most other politicians, however Trump is of course a special case….all the degenerates who engaged in their fascist and criminal Capitol acts, dismissing with violence the decision that people took in not electing Trump again, were hardly discouraged by Trump. Not very different than a fool presiding over unruly children. Except of course that these weren’t children.

    Then again, I believe that people just want new faces. Their choices are dumb, irrational and selfish. Just as Plato explained, the individual doesn’t really care for the whole, only for himself.

    In Italy, Berlusconi was elected as a Prime Minister. He was even more ignorant and stupid than Trump. A lot of people are entertained by things and people that are in bad taste ( entertainment junk like the movie Goodfellas or the series The Sopranos).

    The world is a mad place. In regard to Trump, there is no choice but to hope the Supreme Court will come to the best decision.

    One thing that impressed me about Trump, though, was the 2017 Shayrat missile strike. The idea of launching missiles for any reason, is disturbing, but we live in a disturbing world. It was a harsh response to something extremely, extremely disturbing.

  2. Much as I loathe Trump, the system says he is innocent until proven guilty. So there’s no way SCOTUS or anyone else can disqualify him as a candidate for someting yet to be proved in court.
    But the bigger picture, as always, is the people. The Founders, praising “Virtue” as essential to the republic’s success, would have been appalleld at the tens of millions who deny, downplay, or just plain dismiss Trump’s general behavior as well as his alleged crimes. IF America still had the morals, the media, and the mettle we had before our recent decline, Trump’s candidacy would be a moot point. NO ONE would vote for him.

  3. As I understand it, there are two factors that will decide the issue.

    The first factor is the standard of proof required to establish that Mr. Trump participated in an insurrection. Should it be “more likely than not” (the lowest standard), “the preponderance of evidence”, or “beyond a reasonable doubt”? This can only be decided by the Supreme Court, and must be establish through a proper legal proceeding: a trial. Thus, the Supreme Court could decide that the standard is “beyond a reasonable doubt” and declare that the 14th Amendment applies only if he is convicted of the crime of insurrection. This would defer any decision for several years.

    The second factor is political. Were Mr. Trump to be disqualified, his supporters would forever believe that he was betrayed by the forces of evil and reject the legitimacy of the government. Far better would be for him to be decisively defeated at the ballot box. My opinion is that the various court proceedings against him will result in several convictions before Election Day, which will doom his chances of election.

    You’re certainly right that it makes for a fascinating philosophical discussion.

  4. I think that under a literal construction of law, broadly and of Constitutional Law, narrowly, a reasonable person would have to say: yea. But we also know that differing people, with differing Interests, motives and preferences (my IMPs), will argue those, while waiting for the cows. I made an observation recently, annotating the story of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. Burr won the duel. Hamilton’s likeness ended up on United States currency. Neither man ever attained the Presidency. Was there ever a chance Burr could have held that office? I don’t think so. However, there have always been interests, motives and preferences. History might have gone differently, yes?

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