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  • Writer's pictureBrendan Szendrő

The Presidency and the Rule of Law

Updated: Mar 13, 2021

Supposedly being good at your job does not mean you can commit crimes.

Trump's been trying to build a case all summer for keeping him around even if he did commit egregious crimes. When he touts his "foreign policy" and "economic" records (which are pretty bland and unimpressive thus far), what he's really saying is, he should be above the law because he's a good president. Which he's not, but this is his argument. The underlying numbers of economic performance have little to do with the president - any president - and also do little to indicate living conditions. His foreign policy has amounted to nothing more than aesthetics without substance. Domestic policy is pretty much incoherent except for certain policies designed to spite liberals. Meanwhile, the president pats himself on the back for appointing supreme court justices, as though that were some kind of feat.

The president's supporters have essentially resorted to exaggerating supposed misdeeds of democratic leaders as if, even if they were true, they somehow vindicate the president. In other words, Obama may have done something almost as bad as Trump, so that makes him worse than Trump. That level of cognitive dissonance only exists because the ingroup-outgroup effects in the modern political climate are so pronounced. A large body of literature surrounding group dynamics discusses how group uncertainty produces extremism, shared realities and the desire to prove one's loyalty. In other words, the more the screws tighten on Trump, the more fiercely his base will defend him.

I blame the general uncertainty of "the times" which I guess is easy but I like it better than blaming people. There's a wide range of scholars who have discussed the idea that rapid technological development sort of disintegrates social networks and leaves people isolated. The natural reaction to that is to mobilize into groups. In other words, the modern world is so damn fast and unpredictable that people naturally jump to extremes because it provides them with a sense of security they don't otherwise have. It gets tied up with issues like globalization, immigration, communication, terrorism, capitalism, nationalism and so on. All the traditional markers of identity are weaker, so people are desperate for new ones. In the middle of all that I kind of feel like the right and left played "chicken" with extremism back in 2016, and the right won, hard.

This is also the most opportune time for the president to chip away at checks and balances. Scholars have noted that most dictatorships essentially arise by accident - when populists come to power in democratic elections, they have little understanding of the law and wind up breaking it pretty quickly. In order to save their skins, they start removing legal enforcement mechanisms, and because their parties want to keep the support of the public, they fall in line.

This stuff has been happening all over the place, elsewhere in the world - in Netanyahu's Israel, Erdogan's Turkey, Putin's Russia, Orban's Hungary, Duda's Poland, Duterte's Philippines, and so on, and so on. All of them have preyed on the public's insecurities and the general uncertainty of the times to aggrandize their own power and reshape their countries in their own, far-less democratic images. Thus far we've had much better results here because we have a long history of institutions designed to get in the way of that kind of behavior, but there's no guarantee that holds out forever.

So, be on the look out for that, I guess.

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