TGIF: A Principle for All Seasons

Despite my utter disdain for Donald Trump, I am uneasy about many who oppose him. My specific concern is that they apparently believe that, because of the kind of person Trump is, they may dispense with all constraint when fighting him. Thus the common-sense rules of just conduct and decency that are normally honored at least by lip service, if not by strict observance, are not regarded as binding when Trump is the target. It is a bad — not to mention shortsighted — idea.

Take the dossier claiming that the Russians hold damaging material about Trump’s personal and business conduct. The matter is shrouded in anonymous allegations compiled by a paid opposition researcher and former British spy. But that did not stop many Trump enemies from proclaiming them true. Indeed, the claims reinforced earlier allegations he was a tool of Vladimir Putin (because he expresses doubt about the wisdom of confrontation with Russia) — feeding the revived Cold War fever. Confirmation bias was on ostentatious display as his opponents made it clear they needed no stinkin’ evidence.

I have no idea whether Trump did the things alleged in the dossier, but this I know: I would not want to be subjected to groundless accusations. We each should expect evidence, demand it of the news media and others, and dismiss those who prefer sensational accusation to proof.

To take another example, U.S. House member John Lewis said on Meet the Press: “I don’t see this president-elect as a legitimate president…. I think the Russians participated in helping this man get elected and they helped destroy the candidacy of Hillary Clinton…. That’s not right. That’s not fair. That’s not the open, democratic process.”

In response Trump tweeted at Lewis three times, with characteristic hyperbole if not outright falsehoods:

“Congressman John Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to……”

“mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about the election results. All talk, talk, talk – no action or results. Sad!”

“Congressman John Lewis should finally focus on the burning and crime infested inner-cities of the U.S. I can use all the help I can get!”

Trump was widely denounced for blasting Lewis, largely on grounds that Lewis is a civil rights icon, who had his skull fractured when he and other voting-rights demonstrators marching from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in March 1965 were attacked by billy-club-wielding mounted state police.

Trump’s inaccuracies aside, why may Lewis question the legitimacy of Trump’s impending presidency but Trump may not criticize Lewis’s congressional record? Does Lewis’s near martyrdom over 50 years ago immunize him from criticism for his actions today? (When Lewis self-righteously demands gun control and other restrictions on liberty, one senses that he thinks he’s exempt from criticism.) Is no one allowed to expose Lewis as a sanctimonious voice for the bankrupt “regulating the poor” policies that constitute the welfare state?

When Lewis says Trump won’t be a legitimate president, I’m sure he doesn’t mean what I mean by that proposition. For me, no president (or other government officeholder) is legitimate because no person can morally have legitimate authority over others that they lack over him or her. Radical libertarianism stands for equality of authority, thus the state — democratic or not — is illegitimate.

But that’s not what Lewis means. Being a democrat, he (like most people, including Trump) believes it is legitimate for people to vote for representatives and a chief executive who are thereby authorized to decree what everyone (even those who would opt out) must or must not do. (As Lysander Spooner explained, the individuals constituting the state do not regard themselves as bound by natural-law rights.)

Since Lewis accepts this system it is unseemly for him to decide that the last election was illegitimate — especially when Trump was heavily criticized for suggesting that Barack Obama was not a legitimate president (because of unfounded claims about where he was born) and for saying during his own presidential campaign that he might not accept the election results if he did not win.

Lewis says he bases his nonrecognition of Trump’s presidency on alleged Russian interference in the election (there it is again), but this rings hollow. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by a margin of nearly three million. She lost because she failed to carry six states that Obama carried twice. Does Lewis seriously believe that alleged Russian interference only worked in those six states? And let’s keep in mind that the alleged interference consisted of the release (by whomever) of indisputably authentic emails from Democratic Party and campaign operatives. Is Lewis saying the truth “helped destroy the candidacy of Hillary Clinton”? What would he be saying if the shoe were on the other foot?

The upshot is that there’s more than a little hypocrisy in Lewis’s position — and anyone would be justified to call him out. We should have no special rules for Trump, whether he’s on the attack or being attacked.

I am reminded of the famous scene in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, his play (and then movie) about Sir (later Saint) Thomas More, the former lord chancellor of England and a papal supremacist who would not take the Oath of Supremacy acknowledging King Henry VIII as the Supreme Head of the Church of England — which refusal led to a charge of high treason and his beheading.

In Bolt’s play, More is urged not to let Richard Rich, the solicitor general suspected of spying on him and whose perjured testimony would later convict More of treason, to get away after an encounter. Despite the alarm expressed by William Roper, a lawyer, member of Parliament, and son-in-law and biographer of More; More’s daughter Margaret; and More’s wife, Alice, Sir Thomas shows no interest in pursuing Rich, saying his province is the law, not good and evil, which he is content to leave to God.

Alice: While you talk, he’s gone!

More: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law!

Roper: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!

More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you–where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast –man’s laws, not God’s — and if you cut them down — and you’re just the man to do it — d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

The parallel is clear. The protections against unjust accusations may be inconvenient when a target is as despised as Trump, but is it really wise to dispense with them? What if you’re the next to be accused?

Of course here we are not talking about criminal charges, which can result in loss of liberty and even life. But the protections for criminal defendants are on the same continuum of rules of just and reasonable conduct. Just as it’s wrong to accuse someone of murder and theft without evidence, demanding that the accused prove their innocence, so it is wrong to accuse someone of lesser misconduct in the same manner. Trump should not be an exception because he’s Trump.

I understand the temptation to suspend the rules in his case: Trump himself refuses to abide by them. He has repeatedly made outlandish claims without a scintilla of evidence, challenging others to prove they are not true. Recall his baseless accusation that Ted Cruz’s father was an associate of Lee Harvey Oswald, that “thousands and thousands” of Muslims celebrated the 9/11 attacks on rooftops in Jersey City, New Jersey, and that he lost the popular vote because millions of people voted illegally.

But that’s hardly a good excuse to sink to his level. We were told that when Trump “goes low we go high.” I guess not everyone got the memo.

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Sheldon Richman is the executive editor of The Libertarian Institute, senior fellow and chair of the trustees of the Center for a Stateless Society, and a contributing editor at Antiwar.com. He is the former senior editor at the Cato Institute and Institute for Humane Studies, former editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education, and former vice president at the Future of Freedom Foundation. His latest book is America’s Counter-Revolution: The Constitution Revisited.