Due Process

Lewis Lapham in Lapham's Quarterly:

PicTo pick up on almost any story in the news these days—political, financial, sexual, or environmental—is to be informed in the opening monologue that the rule of law is vanished from the face of the American earth. So sayeth President Donald J. Trump, eight or nine times a day to his 47 million followers on Twitter. So sayeth also the plurality of expert witnesses in the court of principled opinion (media pundit, Never Trumper, think-tank sage, hashtag inspector of souls) testifying to the sad loss of America’s democracy, a once upon a time “government of laws and not of men.” The funeral orations make a woeful noise unto the Lord, but it’s not clear the orators know what their words mean or how reliable are their powers of observation. The American earth groans under the weight of legal bureaucracy, the body politic so judiciously enwrapped and embalmed in rules, regulations, requirements, codes, and commandments that it bears comparison to the glorified mummy of a once upon a time great king in Egypt.

Senior statesmen and tenured Harvard professors say the rule of law has been missing for three generations, ever since President Richard Nixon’s bagmen removed it from a safe at the Watergate. If so, who can be expected to know what it looks like if and when it shows up with the ambulance at the scene of a crime? Does it come dressed as a man or a woman? Blue eyes and sweet smile riding a white horse? Black uniform, steel helmet, armed with assault rifle? Or maybe the rule of law isn’t lost but misplaced. Left under a chair on Capitol Hill, in a display case at the Smithsonian, scouting locations for Clint Eastwood’s next movie. The confusion is in keeping with the trend of the times that elected Trump to the White House. In hope of clarification, this issue of Lapham’s Quarterly looks to the lessons of history. They are more hopeful than those available to the best of my own knowledge and recollection, which tend to recognize the rule of law as the politically correct term of art for the divine right of money.

Trump won the election because he didn’t pretend otherwise. He staked his claim to the White House on the proposition that he was “really rich,” unbought and unbossed and therefore free to say and do whatever it took to Make America Great Again. A deus ex machina descending by escalator into the atrium of his eponymous tower on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue in June 2015, Trump was there to say, and say it plainly, that money is power, and power, ladies and gentlemen, is not self-sacrificing or democratic. Never was, never will be. Law unto itself, name of the game; nature of the beast.

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