This piece appeared in newspapers at the end of September and the beginning of October, 2022.
A showdown is coming between Donald Trump and the Force of the Rule of Law.
On one side, the American system of justice is closing in on Trump from all sides, uncovering a widespread pattern of crimes committed by Trump:
- the state of New York with its civil suit over Trump’s years-long financial cheating;
- the Department of Justice, and the District Attorney of Fulton County Georgia, exposing a series of Trump’s crimes attempting to overturn a legitimate election;
- and the DOJ’s investigation of Trump’s theft of highly sensitive national security documents.
Any attentive citizen — not willfully blind — has witnessed abundant evidence of Trump’s almost habitual criminality, including crimes threatening the American constitutional order and endangering American national security.
The law would hold anyone else who’d done what Trump has done accountable.
But Trump – never one to accept defeat – is also moving toward the showdown, openly threatening violence against the forces of the Rule of Law, as they move to hold him accountable under the law.
As the 1/6 assault on the U.S. Capitol showed – as well as that recent Q Anon rally in Ohio, with Trump and a crowd with arms upraised in what everyone shuddered to recognize as reminiscent of a Nazi salute — Trump’s threat of violence cannot be dismissed.
Some, taking that threat seriously, suggest that perhaps the prosecution of Trump is not worth the risk of such civil strife.
Yielding to such intimidation, however, would be a historic blunder.
For many, the desire to see Trump held accountable grows out of their understandable frustration over Trump’s getting away with so much for so long. And indeed, Trump has shown a brilliance amounting to genius at maneuvering on the wrong side of the law, the Constitution, and simple norms of human decency and not only surviving, but rising in status and power. (Genius—because probably no one else could have gotten away with all Trump did as President.)
To be sure, the sight of such impunity is deeply offensive. But the fundamental stakes in this showdown are much bigger than Trump.
What’s at stake is a most basic part of the constitutional system that defines America– the principle that “No one is above the law.”
A confluence of circumstances are here more profoundly threatening that principle than ever in our history:
- The case of Trump, a former President, is in the brightest of spotlights;
- Overwhelming evidence of Trump’s criminality has been shown to the whole nation;
- And Trump is so blatantly attempting to defeat the Rule of Law.
Were Trump to prevail in this showdown, therefore, a crucial part of America’s historic self-definition would be lost.
Yes, Trump and his supporters might violently attack the Forces of the Rule of Law. But these are precisely the kinds of stakes – the protection of the fundamental elements of our constitutional order – that Americans have always been willing to fight, and endure sacrifices, to protect. (We fought both world wars in the name of such principles.)
And this showdown – over whether Trump will be compelled to submit to the Rule of Law — must be understood as part of a broader and deeper conflict in today’s America: the battle to preserve American Democracy against an unprecedented assault by the forces of Fascism.
Seen as part of that larger battle, this confrontation — over whether Trump will be held accountable — is clearly one from which the Forces of the Rule of Law should not shrink: it offers an ideal battlefield, a winner whether the peace is maintained or not.
- If the Trump side maintains the peace as Trump is indicted, prosecuted, and likely sentenced, the Forces of the Rule of Law will have strengthened that vital American principle – that “No one is above the law.”
- If the army Trump is openly raising does choose violence, that too will be a winner in that wider struggle of lawful Democracy against lawless Fascism. A winner because Americans do not like political violence, and any political cause that resorts to violence discredits itself in their eyes.
The great majority of Americans, rejecting the side of violence, will turn to the Forces of the Rule of Law to protect their security and our social order. And in America, what the great majority rejects (which would be the lawless, fascistic force) loses power, and what they support (which would be the democratic force of the Rule of Law) is given the power to steer the nation forward.
Moreover, if a battle must be fought not just with law but also with violence, this is an opportune moment for American Democracy, when command over the state’s instruments of force (the FBI, the military) are in the hands of the Forces of the Rule of Law.
It is regrettable that upholding the Rule of Law might entail such sacrifices. (One recalls the casualties of the Oklahoma City bombing in the 1990s and of the Insurrection of 1/6.)
But American Democracy is under threat on multiple battlefields. And the facts, the basic principles, and the strategic circumstances make this showdown as good an opportunity as one can expect for the pro-Democracy side for that battle to prevail and safeguard our precious heritage as Americans.