No justice, no peace in healing Trump’s America
Will punishing Trump deepen the divisions that remain so prevalent in American in society, or is healing impossible without justice? Simon Longstaff discusses.
What fate should be reserved for Donald Trump following his impeachment by the US House of Representatives for his role in inciting insurrection?
Trump’s rusted-on supporters believe him to be without blame and will continue to lionise him as a paragon of virtue. Trump’s equally rusted-on opponents see only fault and wish him to be ground under the heel of history.
However, there is a large body of people who approach the question with an open mind — only to remain genuinely confused about what should come next.
On the one hand, there is an abiding fear that punishing Trump will fan the flames that animate his angry supporters elevating Trump’s status to that of ‘martyr-to-his-cause’. Rather than bind wounds and allow the process of healing to begin, the divisions that rend American society will only be deepened.
On the other hand, people believe that Trump deserves to be punished for violating his Oath of Office. They too want the wounds to be bound — but doubt that there can be healing without justice. Only then will people of goodwill be able to come together and, perhaps, find common ground.
There is merit in both positions. So, how might we decide where the balance of judgement should lie?
To begin, I think it unrealistic to hope for the emergence of a new set of harmonious relationships between the now three warring political tribes, the Republicans, Democrats and Trumpians. The disagreements between these three groups are visceral and persistent.
Rather than hope for harmony, the US polity should insist on peace.
Indeed, it is the value of ‘peace’ that has been most significantly undermined in the weeks since the Presidential election result was called into question by Donald Trump and his supporters. Rather than anticipate a ‘peaceful transition of power’ — which is the hallmark of democracy — the United States has been confronted by the reality of violent insurrection.
As it happens, I think that President Trump’s recent conduct needs to be evaluated against an index of peace — not just in general terms but specifically in light of what occurred on January 6th when a mob of his supporters, acting in the President’s name, broke into and occupied the US Capitol buildings — spilling blood and bringing death inside its hallowed chambers.
There is a particular type of peace that can be traced back to the Anglo-Saxon legal codes that provide the foundation for many of the laws we take for granted today. The King’s Peace originally applied to the monarch’s household — not just the physical location but also the ruler, their family, friends and retainers. It was a serious crime to disturb the ‘King’s Peace’. Over time, the scope of the King’s Peace was extended to cover certain times of the year and a wider set of locations (e.g. all highways were considered to be subject to fall under the King’s jurisdiction). Following the Norman Conquest, there was a steady expansion of the monarch’s remit until it covered all times and places — standing as a general guarantee of the good order and safety of the realm.
The relevance of all of this to Donald Trump lies in the ethical (and not just legal) effect of the King’s Peace. Prior to its extension, whatever ‘justice’ existed was based on the power of local magnates. In many (if not most places) disputes were settled on the principle of ‘might was right’.
The coming of the King’s Peace meant that only the ruler (and their agents) had the right to settle disputes, impose penalties, etc. The older baronial courts were closed down — leaving the monarch as the fountainhead of all secular justice. In a nutshell, individuals and groups could no longer take the law into their own hands — no matter how powerful they might be.
These ideas should immediately be familiar to us — especially if we live in nations (like the US and Australia) that received and have built upon the English Common Law. It is this idea that underpins what it means to speak of the Rule of Law — and everything, from the framing of the United States Constitution to the decisions of the US Supreme Court depend on our common acceptance that we may not secure our ends, no matter how just we think our cause, through the private application of force.
As should by now be obvious, those who want to forgive Donald Trump for the sake of peace are confronted by what I think is an insurmountable paradox. Trump’s actions fomented insurrection of the kind that fundamentally broke the peace — indeed makes it impossible to sustain. The insurrectionists took the law into their own hands and declared that ‘might is right’ … and they did so with the encouragement of Donald Trump and those who stood by him and whipped up the crowd in the days leading up to and on that fateful day when the Capitol was stormed.
There literally can be no peace — and therefore no healing — unless the instigators of this insurrection are held to account.
Finally, this is not to say that Donald Trump must suffer his punishment. There is no need for retribution or a restoration, through suffering, of a notional balance between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. It may be enough to declare Donald Trump guilty of the ‘high crime and misdemeanour’ for which he was impeached. And if he remains without either shame or remorse, then it may also be necessary to protect the Republic from him ever again holding elected office — not to harm him but, instead, to protect the body politic.
Given all of this, I think that healing is possible … but only if built on a foundation of peace based on justice without retribution.
Dr Simon Longstaff has been Executive Director of The Ethics Centre for 30 years, working across business, government and society. He has a PhD in philosophy from Cambridge University, is a Fellow of CPA Australia and of the Royal Society of NSW, and an Honorary Professor at ANU National Centre for Indigenous Studies. Simon was made an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in 2013.