Donald Trump’s presidential campaign found its footing on a terrifying, Twitter-driven terrain of real and imagined lawlessness—at the border, in the “inner cities,” at the hands of ISIS—and his ascent to the White House was underwritten by his supporters’ yearning for extralegal resolution. As we hover on the brink of a period of extended exceptions to and suspensions of the law, it’s worth tracking how we arrived here, and what might lie ahead. There are three forces I believe have been especially effective in titrating this newly toxic brew of anti-law populist culture.
The first is Trump’s talent for modeling a contagious, near-poetic anger that makes due process seem like a luxury we simply can’t afford. While it may seem scattershot at times, such panic-priming ultimately enables predictive models of policing, algorithmic assessments of “likely” behavior, group profiling, segregation based on suspicion rather than conviction, and a predisposition to literally shoot first and ask questions later. This mode of political address is often couched in talk of “law and order,” but it privileges order above all. As a practical matter, we may see the full unregulated potential of Big Data technologies unleashed—a fear to which I alluded in my last column. Nearly all of us can expect to be surveilled coldly, by strangers, and then tagged and followed and graded and boxed.
A second force attending the coming order is a dangerous predilection for punishment as unfettered play. Trump doesn’t just call for payback; he seems to relish the idea. He not only published his wish to execute the now-exonerated Central Park Five, but spoke of wanting to see them suffer too. He responds disproportionately to the slightest of slights to his ego; no matter how petty, he’s “gonna love” suing ’em, bankrupting ’em, sending ’em to jail. Trump styles himself as powerful with a vengeance—unrelenting vengeance. One sees that extra dollop of avenging glee reflected in the postelection exuberance of some of his followers—not just in happiness about his winning, for example, but in the ubiquitously expressed desire to see Hil lary Clinton’s supporters actually cry. As projected by and through Trump’s network of delivery systems, his enthusiastic attacks on the “soft,” “wussy,” “coddled” practitioners of “political correctness” can appear as incoherent acts of random sadism. But Trump is telegraphing something consistent: undoing law in the name of order, using a language of violence and the logistics of the hunt.
Third and finally, there is Trump’s boastful self-presentation not just as a Washington “outsider,” but as an exceptional individual beyond the law or judicial regulation—half-sovereign, half-outlaw. (After all, he’s the one who could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” and get away with it.) When it comes to clear conflicts of fiduciary responsibility, he believes that “the president can’t have a conflict of interest…because everything a president does in some ways is like a conflict of interest. But I have—I’ve built—a very great company, and it’s a big company, and it’s all over the world.” Trump seems to have cribbed this magical theory of total immunity from Richard Nixon, who once told David Frost that “when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” This isn’t quite true, as Nixon discovered, since the statement conflates the individual who serves as president with all the powers of the state. When that distinction is lost, a king is born—or a dictator.