Trump Flaunts His Indifference to the Rule of Law

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Trump and Arpaio at a campaign event in Iowa on January 26, 2016. Photo: Mary Altaffer/AP

Even a week later, the stench of it hangs in the air. The pardon of Sheriff Joe Arpaio is one of the more chilling authoritarian moves that Trump has made so far. I say this not simply because Arpaio treated prisoners in his charge in barbaric ways; not just because the president described this brutality as Arpaio simply “doing his job”; not even because Arpaio proudly and constantly engaged in racial profiling, making Latino citizens and noncitizens alike afraid to leave their own homes. I say it for a simpler reason: because it is Trump’s deepest indication yet that the rule of law means nothing to him.

Yes, the pardon power has been abused before — as any perusal of Bill Clinton’s final days in office will confirm. But it makes a difference, it seems to me, when the president pardons a law-enforcement officer for openly breaking the law, and refusing to abide by a court order to stop doing so. It makes an even bigger difference if the pardon is granted long before the legal process has played itself out. This isn’t a pardon, as is usually the case, for someone who has served time, shows contrition and deserves some kind of mercy. It is a pardon seemingly designed to blow a raspberry at the court system, and tell anyone in law enforcement or border control or ICE or anywhere for that matter that, if you commit brutal or illegal acts, the big man has your back.

This is government as an unaccountable, legally immune thug. Of course Trump telegraphed this in the campaign by backing violence against dissenters in his rallies, championing torture, and when he recently told police officers it was fine to manhandle criminal suspects. I still have a hard time imagining a president of the United States openly showing contempt for due process or basic decency; but here we are. No one could defend this — even National Review and The Wall Street Journal were disgusted. But say what you like about Trump, this attraction to brute force, this reveling in it, is something he has never hidden.

Is it also a signal that the president could pardon — even preemptively — anyone caught up in criminality in the Mueller investigation? I suspect so, even though Mueller subtly responded to that threat last Wednesday, by letting it be known he is working alongside Eric Schneiderman, the attorney general of New York. State crimes, after all, can’t be pardoned by the president. But that Trump is even thinking along these lines is a sign of how deeply our system depends on the honor of the individuals involved. An instinctual despot like Trump can find even the most benign of the president’s constitutional powers — the pardon — and turn it against the rule of law. We really need to remind ourselves of this on a daily basis if we are not to become numb to it: to advance his own interests, there is nothing this president would not do. If we enter, as we well might, a constitutional crisis, we have been warned all too clearly what this man is capable of.

Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos, for all their provocations and performance art, are not neo-Nazis either. But antifa’s deployment of violence prevented both of them from speaking at Berkeley, and the mayor of that city is asking young Republicans there to cancel another “free speech” week next month, because of antifa threats. In Oregon, Portland’s Rose Day parade is not a neo-Nazi rally either, but it was canceled this year because antifa threatened violence against a Republican Party float: “You have seen how much power we have downtown and that the police cannot stop us from shutting down roads,” an email told the organizers. “We will not give one inch to groups who espouse hatred toward LGBT, immigrants, people of color or others.” Multiple journalists are not neo-Nazis either, and yet antifa has physically attacked them across the country.

The president, however foul, is not a neo-Nazi, and yet antifa committed violence and vandalism in my hometown, D.C., on Inauguration Day. The Onion, as so often, nailed it: “‘We will stop at nothing to prevent these vile fucking neo-Nazi hate mongers from gathering, or, if not them, someone else,’ said Rebecca Jackson, 26.” In Portland this past June, antifa showed up on the streets armed with “everything from knives to brass knuckles to poles and sticks and bricks and bottles and road flares and chains.” In Berkeley, a news anchor for KTVU, Frank Somerville, wrote: “I experienced hate firsthand today. It came from these people dressed in all black at a protest in Berkeley. Ironically they were all chanting about no hate. Some had shields and gloves. Some had helmets. Some had gas masks.”

And yet it seems as excruciating for many liberals to condemn antifa outright as it was for Trump to unequivocally denounce the neo-Nazis. Indeed, masked thugs were welcomed by the entirely peaceful people in the Boston protest, and mingled freely among them. As John Fund also pointed out, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, in its lengthy and proper condemnation of the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, refused to include a single sentence that also condemned antifa violence: “Though we support peaceful protest and note that most of the counter-demonstrators were peaceful, we condemn violence by anyone, including violence by so-called antifa demonstrators.” Nah. Out of bounds.

The Washington Post ran an op-ed declaring that the American left had long ago cleansed itself of violence; the New York Times featured an apologia for the black-masked thugs by Todd Gitlin, who called them “a defensive response to the growing presence of right-wing extremism.” Others even lionized antifa, comparing them with the allied troops who fought the Nazis in the D-day landings. Really? Black-masked vandals the same as the Normandy advance troops? Surely a better analogy, if we’re going there, would be with Stalin’s Red Army marching on Berlin from the East. Antifa activists, after all do proudly describe themselves as communists, among other things.

The last week, however, has been encouraging. Liberals seem to have snapped out of denial. To her immense credit, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, put out a statement unequivocally denouncing the antifa. The Los Angeles Times also produced a stirring editorial. Let’s hope more follow.

As a physical threat to the lives of Americans, the far right is indeed a bigger worry. I sure don’t want to elide that fact. It has killed several dozen Americans over the last decade, while the far left has killed no one (though one of them did send GOP Congressman Steve Scalise into an ICU a couple of months ago). The president, moreover, has the far-right’s back. In that sense, there is no practical equivalence as a threat. But moral equivalence? You bet. Considered as a totalitarian ideology proud of deploying violence to achieve their ends, antifa’s communism and the neo-Nazis’ fascism, are equally antithetical to liberal democracy. We fought wars against both for much of the last century. And we shouldn’t give either an inch to inflict violence at home.

While I’m at it, some thoughts on the word hate. The dictionary defines it as “intense or passionate dislike of someone.” That’s what George Orwell meant when he described the daily “two minutes of hate” that people were required to observe in the totalitarian state depicted in Nineteen Eighty-Four. The object of such hatred was one Emmanuel Goldstein, an analogy, most presume, to Leon Trotsky, and an enemy of the state. Orwell describes the seductiveness of it: “The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but that it was impossible to avoid joining in. Within 30 seconds any pretense was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic.” Hate obliterates reason; it deliberately dehumanizes the object of hatred; when expressed by a crowd, it can flood the minds and distort the souls of even the most benign bystanders.

And it’s an emotion of peculiar intensity. It is therefore emphatically not, it seems to me, the same as mere discomfort with someone different or suspicion of another group or a set of misguided beliefs or prejudice more generally. Take homophobia for example. Is it truly interchangeable with the word hate? The term phobia suggests fear rather than hatred — which better captures, to my mind, a panic at someone with a different sexual orientation. Are members of my own family, who disagree with me about sexual morality, truly best described as “hating” me? I don’t think so. Is simply following a religious doctrine, held for millennia by all the Abrahamic faiths, about the immorality of sex outside a monogamous procreative marriage also the equivalent of hate? Well, then, Pope Francis is a man of hate. Is opposing marriage equality also “hate”? Well, Barack Obama was therefore a hateful man for the vast majority of his life.

It’s complicated, isn’t it? But the word hate bludgeons a whole universe of human experience into one totalizing emotion. It obscures more than it enlightens. One of the privileges of spending a couple of decades debating marriage equality with the religious right was that I was forced to interact with “haters.” Yes, they exist on the religious right. But, in my own experience, they were dwarfed in number by those who were confused or afraid or discomfited or ignorant or rigid or merely extremely devout. In person, many were not just polite but warm. The most passionate and direct “hate” I felt in those years, I swear to God, came from some other gay men.

The glib and easy use of the term can also lead to nauseating self-righteousness. It inevitably implies that you, in denouncing “hate,” are epitomizing “love.” You see this constantly on insufferably smug T-shirts and posters: “Love Trumps Hate.” The entire rubric is almost designed to blind you to your own faults, and assumes that you are incapable of hatred yourself. There was a classic example of how this black-versus-white language distorts reality from Charlottesville. A New York Times reporter, Sheryl Gay Stolberg, on the scene, livetweeted what she saw with her own eyes: “The hard left seemed as hate-filled as alt-right. I saw club-wielding ‘antifa’ beating white nationalists being led out of the park.” After an outcry on social media, she was pressured to amend this. Several hours later, she tweeted:  “Re-thinking this. Should have said violence not hate-filled. They were standing up to hate.” She was right the first time. Hatred is not restricted to one political party or movement. It is, just like love, part of all of us.

A final word. Last week’s item lionizing a priest who confessed to once being in the KKK after being prompted by Charlottesville needs, well, amplification. It transpires, according to the Washington Post, that the priest came clean only because someone had tracked down his past and had contacted the diocese — not because he suddenly felt a need to repent. As for atonement, the priest has still not compensated some victims of his youthful rampages — and his love of the Confederacy endured for decades. Oh well. Forgive me for latching onto one small beam of hope in these troubling times. I swear I’ll know better in future.

See you next Friday.

Trump Flaunts His Indifference to the Rule of Law