That the United States is a nation built on the rule of law is a given for historians and political commentators. It’s the Constitution, laws, common law and case law that define our central themes about values, freedom, crime and justice. The rule of law may be central to our national ethos but sticking to it has always been a struggle. It’s been tested by armed insurrection, political duplicity, tolerance of social customs of oppression and suppression and “legal” practices that are morally reprehensible. Nevertheless, the rule of law has prevailed in the end.
Overlooked, I think, is the amount of trust required for the rule of law to work with enforceable authority. We as a people must trust that elected leaders will honor the rule of law and be held accountable if they stray too far from it. For the people to have trust, its elected leaders must be trustworthy. There seems to be a range of how trustworthiness is defined as that word allows considerable variance from the ideal. Limits to variation are set by some broad, ill-defined measure of public tolerance. With few exceptions, America’s reliance on the rule of law to be honored has worked at the national level, until recently. Up to a certain point there have always been exceptions at the local level where privileged and powerful people have been allowed to operate above the law with impunity. The same has not been true at the national level where miscreants have been found out and punished. Presidents have been forced to resign. Members of Congress have been censured, stripped of committee assignments, arrested and convicted of crimes when their behavior went beyond the limits of tolerance.
With the election of Trump, national limits of tolerance changed abruptly. He ran for the office with a life long history of evading and avoiding the rule of law with no serious consequence. No wonder he continued to behave the same way once in office. With his campaign boast that “he alone can fix it” should have been a warning for what was to come. Once in Office he publicly declared that as president he could do anything he wanted and it would be legal because the president did it. His disregard for the rule of law resulted in two impeachments not sustained by the Senate, proving to himself and his supporters that he could continue flouting the rule of law on national television and get away with it. In an appallingly curious way it made him a folk hero to millions who had spent years grumbling over coffee or beers about what they would say to all those uppity government types if they had the chance. Now here was a president doing just that and getting away with it. It either didn’t matter or didn’t occur to them that Trump was destroying the democracy and social structures that have made the U.S.A. a great nation of freedom and promise. He even ran his businesses as profit making subsidiaries of the executive office. I suspect a good many Americans believed Trump was doing no worse than any other president, he was just more public about it. It’s a belief that might have been drawn from examples of local politicians who ruled as if kings and got away with it.
` Whether liked or not, the Biden administration has restored respect for the executive office as well as an overall adherence to the rule of law. Results of his presidency have served to regain international respect for the country. He’s even kept from interfering with the investigation of his son and the consequences Hunter might face if tried and convicted. At the federal level, it’s a promising start for the moral renewal of American politics but the future is not guaranteed. Trump, DeSantis, Pence and other Republicans are running for president, each promising to be more trumpian than ever. The Freedom Caucus representing about ten percent of the House of Representatives openly disregards the rule of law and time honored legislative customs that allow room for bipartisan agreements on crucial matters. They’ve also unleashed a cascade of phony investigations into non existent Biden corruption. They can’t even produce smoke from an illusory smoking gun, but wild allegations blasted over cable television serve to incite public doubt. As history proves, sowing doubt is all that’s needed to wrest democracy from the hands of voters.
What will happen on election day? We will wait and see. So much depends on decisions voters make in November of ’24. Reading tea leaves, examining entrails, casting lots, or relying on speculating pundits is of no avail. Even the Magic Eight-ball is silent.