Though it was lost in the four-year cyclone that was the presidency of Donald Trump, one of his most immoral acts was to pardon soldiers who were accused of committing war crimes by killing unarmed civilians or prisoners. Military leaders, including his own defense secretary and the secretary of the Army objected, saying it would undermine good order and discipline. Lawlessness can easily beget lawlessness.
But the American system is ill prepared to deter leaders bent on undermining the rule of law. Checks and balances spread powers across the government, but that isn’t enough to temper or stop bad-faith actors looking to subvert the law. According to a new article in The Atlantic, Gen. Mark Milley, upon becoming the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 2019, “found himself in a disconcerting situation: trying, and failing, to teach President Trump the difference between appropriate battlefield aggressiveness on the one hand, and war crimes on the other.”
Donald Trump, as General Milley discovered and many Americans already knew, is a man unencumbered by any moral compass. He goes the way he wants to go, legalities and niceties be damned. Last week, in a post on his social network, Mr. Trump argued that General Milley’s actions would have once been punishable by death.
Most Americans probably didn’t notice his screed. Of those who did and were not alarmed, far too many nodded along in agreement. As Josh Barro said in a Times Opinion round table this week about the former president’s recent comments, “Trump is and has been unhinged, and that’s priced in” to the views that many voters have of him.
It is no exaggeration to say that Mr. Trump is running for the presidency on a platform of lawlessness, promising to wield the power of the state against his enemies — real or imagined. Today, millions and millions of Americans support him for that reason or despite it.
In poll released this week, 51 percent of American adults said they’d vote for Mr. Trump over President Biden, including the vast majority of Republicans. And Wednesday night’s farcical G.O.P. debate may only increase Mr. Trump’s large lead in the primary.
That advantage over the Republican field is growing even as prosecutors are finally trying to hold Mr. Trump legally responsible for his misdeeds — from the plot to overturn the 2020 election to fraud allegations concerning his real estate empire.
The backlash has been predictable: In the past few months, Mr. Trump has argued that federal laws about classified documents don’t apply to him; floated the idea of pardons for his supporters jailed for attacking the Capitol; said that judges with whom he disagrees are unfit to preside over cases against him; and has been accused of threatening to prejudice the jury pool in one case. A judge decided to shield the identity of jurors in another after Trump supporters posted the names, photos and addresses of grand jurors involved in issuing an indictment in that case. He is also pushing for a government shutdown to halt Justice Department investigations, to force a show of loyalty and try to bend our political system to his will — even when he is out of office.
All this has accompanied a sharp uptick in the often incoherent statements from the 77-year-old former president, on social media and at his rallies. And while many Americans long ago tuned him out, his most extreme supporters, like Representative Paul Gosar of Arizona, have not. In his newsletter, Mr. Gosar recently wrote that General Milley should be hanged.
As the legal cases against Mr. Trump have picked up, “so too have threats against law enforcement authorities, judges, elected officials and others,” The Times reported this week. “The threats, in turn, are prompting protective measures, a legal effort to curb his angry and sometimes incendiary public statements, and renewed concern about the potential for an election campaign in which Mr. Trump has promised ‘retribution’ to produce violence.”
Mr. Trump’s targets extend to other Republicans. In a biography out next month, Senator Mitt Romney, disclosed that he was spending $5,000 per day on security for himself and his family against threats from Trump supporters.
This combustible combination of heated political rhetoric, unhinged conspiracy theories, anti-government sentiment and a militant gun culture have created fertile ground for political violence. The country is not powerless to stop the spread of lawlessness but it requires addressing those precursors to violence.
Many of those elements swirled around a visit by Mr. Trump this week to a gun store in South Carolina that this summer, sold an AR-15-style rifle to a man who later carried out a racist mass shooting at a dollar store. During his visit, Mr. Trump hefted a custom Glock handgun with his face etched onto the handle. Though he said he wanted to buy one of the weapons — they’re big sellers! — it is unclear if he could legally do so since he is under indictment.
Mr. Trump’s whims and erratic online missives should not be dismissed as “Trump being Trump.” Take his call this month for House Republicans to shut down the government. Mr. Trump egged them on, urging them to settle for nothing less than their full slate of demands, including forcing the Justice Department to end its investigations of him. He called it “the last chance to defund these political prosecutions against me and other Patriots.”
While a government shutdown won’t end the prosecutions of Mr. Trump, a Trump presidency could easily do so. After all, there are few moral or legal hurdles left to clear after pardoning war criminals.
There are many nations where citizens live in fear of governments that wield unchecked and arbitrary authority against their enemies, real or imagined. That is the America that Mr. Trump is promising his supporters. When Mr. Trump told supporters “I am your retribution,” all Americans should take him at his word.
Defeating Mr. Trump at the ballot box is going to require a lot more political courage than it takes to put flashes of honesty in the pages of a memoir. The former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson is the latest in a long line of memoirists, declaring in an interview on Tuesday for her new book that Mr. Trump is “most grave threat we will face to our democracy in our lifetime, and potentially in American history.”
True enough. Which is why Americans can’t wait until January 2025, and another shelf of memoirs, to hear the truth that so many Republicans have long known.
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