The Divine Right of Trump

King Louis XIV of France

L’etat, c’est moi!  — Quotation attributed to King Louis XIV of France, known as the Sun King, an apostle of the Divine Right of Kings. 

Sir, the Constitution says treason is punishable by death. You’ve accused your adversaries of treason. Who specifically are you accusing of treason?NBC News journalist Peter Alexander questioning President Donald Trump, who replied: Well, I think a number of people…. If you look at [former FBI Director James] Comey, if you look at [former FBI Acting Director Andrew] McCabe, if you look at probably people higher than that. 

Just when I think President Donald Trump can go no lower, he gobsmacks me with a further descent into the unthinkable. Having called for the jailing of Hillary Clinton, his 2016 presidential opponent, Trump is now accusing two former directors of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the agency charged with protecting, among other things, Americans from treasonous acts, of treason. But, wait, Trump’s reference to “people higher” is even worse, because who was higher than Comey and his deputy director McCabe? Former Attorney General Loretta Lynch, their boss, and President Barack Obama, her boss. To put it bluntly, Trump has accused his predecessor of treason. That both Obama and Lynch are African Americans should not escape notice.

“This is really a feature of petty dictators, where you see the power of investigation… used as a political tool against enemies,” Claire Finkelstein, the director of the Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law at the University of Pennsylvania’s  law school, told NBC News. Trump’s ploy is transparent; he wishes to confuse the public with tales of wrongdoing by the intelligence and law enforcement communities to suggest he is a victim of a conspiracy to undo the results of the 2016 election. To accomplish that goal, Trump does not care how much damage he does to the Constitution or the rule of law. All that matters is chaos and mayhem, which serve to obscure his conspiring with Russians to influence the election results and his subsequent coverup of that conspiracy while president.

Kellyanne Conway, far right, attesting to Trump’s calmness.

Trump has stripped any officials with a modicum of respect for the Constitution from his entourage. Only sycophants who believe their most important job is to assuage the narcissism of the would-be dictator-in-chief are left. For proof of this, watch the video of the press conference in which Trump called upon a number of top aides, including press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, counselor Kellyanne Conway, and economic adviser Larry Kudlow, to attest to his calmness when he blew up a meeting with top Democratic leaders over a plan to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure. 

Whether Trump was calm or throwing a temper tantrum is not the point. But, the fawning over the putative dictator by his aides is reminiscent of the behavior one would have seen in Berlin and Moscow in the 1930s. The suggestion that launching an investigation by the head of the FBI into possible cooperation between Trump and Russians is treason reflects the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings, the tenet that empowered the absolute monarchs of Europe centuries ago. “I am the state,” said France’s King Louis XIV.

Representative Matthew Lyon of Vermont, imprisoned for sedition during the administration of President John Adams.

Only once before has an American president suggested that criticism of him is unlawful. In 1798, during the so-called Quasi Naval War with France, the administration of President John Adams ushered a series of laws through Congress — known as the Alien and Sedition Acts — that toughened requirements for the naturalization of immigrants and prohibited criticism of the government. One victim of the law, Representative Matthew Lyon of Vermont, accused President Adams of “unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and self avarice.” Adams may have been stung, but that hardly undermined the legitimacy of the government of the United States. Lyon’s constituents agreed, reelecting him to Congress while he was in prison. 

Leaders who see themselves as synonymous with the government they lead easily conclude that criticism of them is tantamount to illegal attacks on the nation. In 1798, the confusion of leaders and their government was called sedition; now, under Trump, the accusation is treason. Under Adams, Lyon was jailed; Trump would have Comey and McCabe executed, if he had his way.

Trump is right: Treasonous acts are being committed. But, he is wrong about who are the criminals. Not Comey and McCabe, American officials who did their jobs. No, the guilty party is the president, who flouts the law, conspires with foreign governments, and obstructs justice. His illegal behavior apparently knows no bounds. In February, Trump declared a fake emergency to spend money Congress refused to appropriate for a border wall the nation does not need. The unwillingness of Republicans in Congress to stand up to this unconstitutional defiance of the separation of powers emboldened Trump to further rule by fiat. Now, he appears ready to ignore the House and Senate vote — supported by Republicans and Democrats — to end support for Saudi Arabian backing of the war in Yemen and sell arms to the murderers of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. 

Like a petty despot, Trump ignores all requests and subpoenas for administration officials to appear before congressional committees and submit documents to Congress. Trump also has authorized Attorney General William Barr, another Trumpian lapdog, to declassify intelligence secrets in an investigation into the investigators who tried to prevent Russian penetration of the Trump campaign. Apparently, in the pursuit of power, Trump believes CIA sources should become public, but not his tax returns. 

King George III

These are abuses of power tantamount to treasonous undermining of the nation’s security and its constitutional checks and balances. Tump’s war on the rule of law will get worse the more the evidence and his actions deem him unfit for office. Expect  the president’s lawlessness to continue until Congress takes action. Trump must be removed from office to demonstrate that this is a nation of laws, not men, and that we rejected the Divine Right of Kings when we overthrew King George III.

Posted May 28, 2019

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