1. The Only Venue Where Trump Is Powerless
Brent Orrell made a point today that’s worth thinking about:
A couple lawyer buddies have made this point to me in the past and I’ve always resisted it, but I’ve come around. I think it’s obviously true that Trump has defeated every other American system which imposes some form of accountability:
Financial (by lying about valuations; using multiple bankruptcies; and renegotiating contracts after the fact)
Social (by being immune to shame, which is what society uses to enforce mores and norms)
Political (by taking over a party institution over the express wishes of the party bosses, even to the point of forcing that party’s institutions to support a coup)
Trump does not do so well in the courts. In court, Trump’s superpowers seem to disappear.
Why is that? And can we be sure that it will always be the case?
What makes the legal system different from all the other spheres of public life is that it has guns.
Guns are the backstop of the law. They are what make people obey it. They enforce the consequences.
You can lie to reporters, lie to your supporters, lie in books. You can say whatever you want outside of court. But what makes a sworn oath different is that if you lie while making such a declaration, the law can charge you. And if the law convicts you, then men with guns will force you to come with them.
All of the other spheres of public life are run on the honor system. We police ourselves and each other through complicated webs of soft incentives and disincentives. Anyone who does not wish to participate in these honor systems, we have now discovered, can opt out. The systems can be ignored, or fought, or corrupted. Because the only thing backstopping them are people’s opinions, thoughts, and feelings.
Is it good that the threat of state violence is the only tool America has to combat the machinations of an aspiring autocrat? Not really, no. Because by definition this highlights the extent to which our other tools—all of those different honor systems—have been broken.
But it is a good thing that this threat of state violence still works.
2. Legal Systems Are People, Too
Here is the bad thing: We shouldn’t assume that the legal system will be Trump’s kryptonite for forever.