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If we live in "a nation of laws," why is Donald Trump not in jail?

Like most Americans (and I should qualify that by admitting that by "most" I mean those not encumbered with the term minority, I had always assumed that laws governed our nation. Admittedly, that notion may not have been shared by Black Americans historically relegated to poorer housing and lesser jobs, by Asian-Americans whose internment during World War II had brutally defined their place in American hierarchy, or by women who had waited nearly a century and a half after the Constitution signing just to be able to vote. (And the century after that has yet to provide a woman president.) 

Those major exceptions cannot be shunted aside, but the American ethos has always comprised a belief in laws that protected decent citizens from criminals and kept those criminals from creating more havoc. We knew it didn't always work. We knew the wealthy and privileged could buy their way out of legal difficulties and that the minorities paid disproportionately for their transgressions. But the concept of "liberty and justice for all" was instilled in us at an early age, and it remains difficult for us to abandon it.

But those were days when we didn't need to be told that we lived in a nation of laws. It was a given—and we moved on to other matters—like being a decent human being. We weren't always successful, but we realized at a basic level that humanity demanded that we be at least humane. Then came the ascendency of Donald Trump, and we began to question the assumption. We elected a leader whose flouting of the law defined his leadership and whose disdain for the law-abiding became his hallmark. He bribed foreign leaders, benefitted financially and illegally from his position, tacitly and openly endorsed white supremacy, police brutality, and racial prejudice, and even promoted discredited and dangerous medical advice that increased the mortality from the pandemic. (How many Covid-19 deaths were directly attributable to MAGA disdain for treatment and prevention, and who will deny the relationship between the newly empowered anti-vaxxers and the current measles outbreaks?)

In 2020, the majority of voters in the nation of laws awakened and removed Donald Trump from office, but the crimes he committed on January 6, 2021—those that centered on but are not limited to fomenting an insurrection—have gone unpunished. And so it is in that atmosphere of a failed nation of laws that one of Trump's lawyers, John Sauer, was recently presented with the following question: could a president order SEAL Team Six to kill a political rival and never be criminally prosecuted for it? Sauer answered that unless the House had impeached and the Senate had convicted that murderer first, such an act would be immune.

Maybe after seven years of Trump's indiscretions, misdemeanors, and general lack of decorum and principle, we have become desensitized to everything. Maybe now we just roll our eyes and say well, that's Trump being Trump. But when one of his lawyers interprets the law in such a way that a president who kills a political rival and is then supported by his party remains immune from prosecution—when a lawyer schooled in the laws of the country offers such a stunning and disturbing opinion without batting an eye, and when we as a nation file that away as just another Trump thing, maybe it's time to admit that we no longer live in a nation of laws but in a plutocracy where wealth and influence decide principles and that the America that won world wars and served as a beacon for the world wars no longer exists. Even when faced with a bleak and autocratic future, we lack the spine to invalidate a miscreant before he destroys what remains of a nation of laws.

America has earned and held a revered position in the world. Yes, we have been resented and even hated, but the fact that we had made democracy work ennobled us. And within America there was a shared belief—one that did not require written laws but that we understood to be so—that we were fortunate simply to be Americans. Those days are gone. Those Americans have grown quiet, timid, and afraid. And Donald Trump understands that and continues to prey on them. That brash statement of his first candidacy—I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters—has come full circle. Now, he can murder a political opponent and not face arrest. And if you think such an act cannot occur in a country as weak and divided as ours is today, then you really haven't been paying attention.

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