Don’t Let Trump Turn us into a Third World Country.
Trump: If I were president “you’ll be in jail.”
(Applause from members in the audience.)
I added the fact that there was applause from some people in the audience to describe what happened last night and to make the point that radical changes in political systems need not happen amid loud outcries of opposition. They are possible because they are popular with some significant group of people. The implications of what drew the applause is only apparent much later.
Donald Trump proposed a fundamental change in our form of government last night: criminalizing defeated opposition.
He made a threat/promise to prosecute then jail Hillary Clinton if she is defeated in November.
It is an easy and familiar path. Democracies empower the state with the police power. They appoint the prosecutors (the US Attorney), the police (the FBI), and by choosing the venue can select the judge. Criminalizing the opposition can have the procedural form of the rule of law. The election provides a mandate for leadership. One side is empowered, the other disempowered. Passions have run high in the election. There is an opportunity to solidify the victory.
It is an easy and familiar path for republics to fall under the leadership of strong men governments. Someone takes power, either after a national crisis or an election. It is a moment when the opposition can be prosecuted, allies of the opponent can be intimidated, and legitimate potential rivals can be marginalized. The resulting government need not lose the form of an elected democracy. It is just that the leadership wins with 90 to 100 percent of the vote.
Does this happen? It happens all the time. It begins by defining the opposition as illegitimate, as a criminal or a traitor. It could take the form of asserting that one opponent is a founder of a terrorist enemy such as ISIS and by saying that the opponent should be in jail.
It is considered bad form to mention a certain central European democracy which came to power in 1933 in which a strong charismatic leader elected by the voters became a tyrant. So I will avoid that instance to mention instead the normal course of revolutions, from the French to the Russian to the Chinese, the the multitude of governments in Latin America in which men are elected in a wave of popular appeal and then consolidate power by criminalizing the opposition.
I am in Cambridge, Massachusetts as I write this. The cab driver who brought me from Logan airport to Harvard Square was from Russia. In excellent English he explained how Putin was popular and he laughed when he said that of course he gets nearly 100% of the vote now. Who else? Putin, he said, will be in charge, but it is not so bad because even though he is in complete control Russia can endure it because, thank God, Putin will eventually die, so change can happen.
Donald Trump was not intentionally proposing a fundamental change in our constitutional system of checks and balances. He was not thinking deeply about history, nor the founding tradition of George Washington the victorious general handing back his commission upon victory and returning power from the army back to civilian leadership. He was not thinking abut the tradition of orderly transition of governments to opposition parties, one going back to the transition from Adams to Jefferson.
Trump has an applause line and a constituency that enjoys the prospect of the defeat and humiliation of Hillary Clinton. But his promise to begin prosecution of a defeated opposition is an attack on the most vulnerable point in a republic, turning power over to the opposition. In the 20th Century the transitions were orderly, but it need not be. Nixon resigned under bi-partisan pressure but Ford needed to pardon him to end the “long national nightmare.” The handoff from James Buchanan to Abraham Lincoln precipitated a civil war.
[Could Hillary do the same kind of thing, if she were elected? How could she do it? She could direct the IRS to clamp down on “abusive tax cheating” among high risk filers which just happen to include Trump. Certainly there will be things which are arguably incorrect or in a gray area — something inevitable in big complex returns. The IRS could freeze assets, claim there were RICO violations, criminalize Trump and tell him that his children will be imprisoned as well if he doesn’t plea to something. In short, they could squeeze Trump’s senior employees the way midlevel drug dealers are squeezed into giving testimony against their bosses. If the endless resources of the IRS with the power to freeze and seize assets are put to work in a political persecution Trump and his children could be in prison and all his businesses bankrupted. But presumably she will not do this. It would be tyranny, and it would certainly put a chilling effect onto future billionaires considering a run for office. But it is important to note she did not threaten this.]
Trump’s comment could be lost among the barbs and insults involving sex and emails, but it was the most important line in the 100 minute Town Hall debate.
Check out my blog: www.peterwsage.blogspot.com)
Wait. There is even more! That’s right, there is also a podcast. Thad Guyer and I hash out the meaning of the current polls. It isn’t as clear as the Real Clear Politics thinks. We discuss the videotape and the debate and whether Trump is getting the right message out.