It’s not an exaggeration to say that historians may mark this week as the fall of the American republic.
On Monday evening, news broke of the FBI’s raid on the residence of former president Donald Trump in Florida.
Among the reasons Julius Caesar chose to march his army across the Rubicon was that if he heeded the Senate’s demands, he would be subject to prosecution. The same reason keeps Latin American dictators from ever giving up power: the knowledge that letting go means jail time or worse. It’s the reason Ford pardoned Nixon, and why Donald Trump decided not to “lock her up” and prosecute Hillary Clinton after his election in 2016.
Prosecuting political opposition is how republics die and dictatorships begin.
“No one is above the law.”
This has been the constant rejoinder to those noticing this breach of actual Constitutional norms dating back nearly 250 years, and on its face, it’s true. The presidency doesn’t entitle anyone to a lifetime of immunity from prosecution. If a former president decides to say, shoot someone on Fifth Avenue, it’s true that he should not be excused from the normal enforcement of the law. Nevertheless, this is a norm that has rightfully not been breached for a quarter of a millennium and the duration of the American experiment in self-government.
It’s incredibly important that even the impression that the U.S. government is persecuting its domestic political opposition is avoided; critically, Americans cannot have good reason to believe that we have a two-tiered justice system based on whether one’s politics are favored or disfavored by the regime. That means, as Omar Little in “The Wire” once said, “if you come at the king, you best not miss.”
Only ironclad evidence of a very serious crime could ever justify this kind of raid on a former president’s home. If that standard means that former presidents, 46 of them – more relevantly the six of them currently living – occasionally get away with low-level swamp behavior that might jail a Rod Blagojevich, well, that’s a price that’s much lower than the alternative.
And what is the reported reason for turning over Mar-a-Lago? Ongoing litigation over potentially classified documents under the Presidential Records Act. Two hundred and forty-six years without trying to jail political opposition comes to an end because of alleged minor mishandling of documents, which Trump easily could have declassified (and who, including a court, will be able to prove that he did not?) with a wave of his hand as he was leaving the Oval Office in January 2021.
To call this pretextual for the gravity of the breach is not enough; it’s a transparent masquerade. “Show me the man, and I’ll show you the crime,” said Lavrentiy Beria, Stalin’s chief of secret police. This is the pretext that allowed the FBI to thoroughly search President Trump’s home, a minor request that could have easily been dealt with through the President’s cooperating legal team.
Blatant political prosecution is not an easy cycle to break, once begun. The most likely course from here is partisan tit for tat. Even if Republicans had the stomach for this, though, the apparatus of the regime will not work for them the way it hums happily for Democratic aims. There have already been calls for hearings, investigations, and prosecution of those FBI agents and supervisors who abused their power this week. Those calls should be echoed and heeded. But a few high-profile examples won’t save us. Our unelected administrative overlords cross Rubicons without fear because they know any attempt to hold them accountable will falter, as most of President Trump’s agenda did, on the rocks of the administrative state. There must be more than hearings; there must be legislation that ensures that every executive employee keeps his or her job at the pleasure of the president.
The permanent class of Washington must actually fear the changing of the guard as determined by the American voter; the power of the administrative state must be severely curtailed and agencies brought to heel. It’s hard to see any other way forward from here that doesn’t end in civil war, street violence, or the rise of an American Caesar.
I’ve returned to Abraham Lincoln’s Lyceum Address more than any other document since the summer of 2020, and once again, Lincoln’s words seem prophetic for our times.
“By such examples, by instances of the perpetrators of such acts going unpunished, the lawless in spirit, are encouraged to become lawless in practice; and having been used to no restraint, but dread of punishment, they thus become, absolutely unrestrained. — Having ever regarded Government as their deadliest bane, they make a jubilee of the suspension of its operations; and pray for nothing so much, as its total annihilation. While, on the other hand, good men, men who love tranquility, who desire to abide by the laws, and enjoy their benefits, who would gladly spill their blood in the defense of their country; seeing their property destroyed; their families insulted, and their lives endangered; their persons injured; and seeing nothing in prospect that forebodes a change for the better; become tired of, and disgusted with, a Government that offers them no protection; and are not much averse to a change in which they imagine they have nothing to lose…
By such things, the feelings of the best citizens will become more or less alienated from it; and thus it will be left without friends, or with too few, and those few too weak, to make their friendship effectual. At such a time and under such circumstances, men of sufficient talent and ambition will not be wanting to seize the opportunity, strike the blow, and overturn that fair fabric, which for the last half century, has been the fondest hope, of the lovers of freedom, throughout the world.”