How Not to Restore the Rule of Law

From the May-June 2016 Trumpet Print Edition

Many members of the United States Republican Party are yearning for the day when one of their own can undo the unconstitutional reforms of the Democrats’ über-presidency. In their quest to fight against the agenda of President Barack Obama, many Republicans are turning to real-estate developer and reality tv celebrity Donald J. Trump.

In his campaign, Trump has painted himself as a man on a white horse, a hero who can save America through strength, cunning and the art of the deal. He has not pointed people back to the Constitution or any other legal framework. He has only asked people to trust him to make better decisions than President Obama.

During a speech Mr. Trump gave at a Super Tuesday rally, a reporter asked him how he would deal with Congress if he became president. In light of the dangerous precedents set in the current presidency, Trump’s response was sobering. “I’m going to get along great with Congress,” he said. “Paul Ryan, I don’t know him very well, but I’m sure I’m going to get along great with him. And, if I don’t, he’s going to have to pay a big price.”

Instead of trying to return America to constitutional principles and the rule of law, it seems a huge number of America’s voters want to fight fire with fire. Instead of trying to reverse the concentration of power into the office of an über-president, supporters of Trump hope to use that power for their own agenda. Why else support a man who publicly promises to use tactics of demagoguery to circumvent constitutionally elected members of the legislature?

It seems Congress wouldn’t be the only organization “to pay a big price” if Mr. Trump is elected. At a rally in February, Trump vowed revenge on the U.S. press, promising to enact strict libel laws if elected. “I’ll tell you what, I think the media is among the most dishonest groups of people I’ve ever met,” he said. “They’re terrible. … I’m going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money. We’re going to open up those libel laws. So that when the New York Times writes a hit piece, which is a total disgrace, or when the Washington Post, which is there for other reasons, writes a hit piece, we can sue them and win money instead of having no chance of winning because they’re totally protected.”

At another rally, Trump bragged that he could get away with murder. “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters,” he said at a campaign event in New York City in January. Even joking about something like this reveals an attitude of being above the law. When voters start supporting “their” candidate above the rule of law, the nation is in grave danger.

While Mr. Obama’s policies may not carry over to the next president, the powers of the über-presidency will!

In the ancient Roman Republic, a demagogue named Lucius Cornelius Cinna almost became dictator of Rome. To stop him and his successors, the Senate eventually appointed Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix as dictator legibus faciendis et reipublicae constituendae causa (dictator for the making of laws and for the settling of the constitution).

The Romans found out the hard way that you can’t return to limited government by electing a strongman. Sulla used his dictatorial powers to slaughter his political rivals, setting the stage for a civil war that led to the rise of Julius Caesar. In less than a century, Rome morphed from a constitutional republic to a dictatorship of god-emperors.

A grand lesson we can learn from history is that once the habit of disregarding legality begins to spread, the rule of law begins to collapse. The end result is always the tyrannical rule of men.