When Donald Trump’s extremely selective outrage isn’t just embarrassing, it’s also arguably illegal.
At least, that seems to be the case from where I’m standing. It’s bad enough that most of America is numb to bouts of public violence — terrorism and otherwise — but it’s quite another thing when the President of the United States actively propagandizes such an event and uses it to score cheap points with the rabble.
I’m speaking, of course, about Trump’s public comments — Tweets, mostly — about the suspect in the recent New York City vehicular terrorist attack. What Trump said, and the ease with which he drew out similar sentiments from the Republican Establishment, reveals less a president/role model and more a bully who neither understands nor appreciates that democracy is a process rather than a power structure.
Trump, Terrorism and Due Process
I’m not going to rehash the specifics here or name names, since we all know the story. A man with a public history of psychological problems and who dabbled in religion killed Americans on a sidewalk in New York City with a rented van. It’s awful and unforgivable.
What it is not is an excuse to jettison decency, which President Donald Trump did immediately and publically when he demanded the man be sent indefinitely to Guantanamo Bay, which is where America has been putting its legally fraught inconveniences for far too long already.
GOP stalwart and “maverick” John McCain, also given to very selective bouts of hysteria, practically ran to the President’s side to signal his support for the idea: “There’s no Miranda rights for somebody who kills Americans.”
Except for the part where he’s as wrong as it’s possible to be. If being an American citizen comes with any perks at all, then chief among them is knowing that one will receive fair treatment at the hands of the law. Neither presidents nor senators get to wave away somebody’s rights to due process, “terrorism” charges or not.
And another thing: It should be clear to everybody by now that even the word “terrorism” is a weapon in America, because as soon as reason is found to apply it, an outsized portion of America’s electorate and government seem to believe that’s reason enough to suspend everything to do with the workings of justice. It can’t be allowed to continue.
A President Beats His Chest While a Nation Mourns
Trump turned up the bluster once his echo chamber started picking up the narrative and running with it. “Should move fast,” Trump tweeted on November the second. “DEATH PENALTY.”
It might not feel like it, but the narrative surrounding this man — with no small amount of help from the President himself — now includes the phrase “enemy combatant.” With the word “terrorism” in the mix, it was inevitable. The two are like chocolate and peanut butter.
Here’s the rub, though:
The man in question is an American citizen. Full stop. Not a soldier. Not an “enemy combatant.” If Guantanamo Bay exists for a sound reason or ever did (it doesn’t and didn’t) it was to house war criminals from other countries — not American citizens who kill Americans on American soil. What Trump and McCain propose here isn’t simply an affront and insult to the justice system — it’s comically un-American. There’s no precedent for it, it’s illegal, and it doesn’t even make sense.
It’s not the first time Donald Trump has signaled contempt for the workings of justice and, with it, the concept of civilized society. Even before he “won” the election, Trump was calling for the execution of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl — the famed soldier who departed his post in 2009. Some legal experts contend that Trump’s public comments represent “mitigation evidence” in the case. As a recognizable public figure, Trump’s regular bouts of hysterics tend to get noticed. The folks whose deaths he’s calling for have a right to a fair trial, but he may have so poisoned the well of discourse that there is now no hope for such a thing.
Maybe it’s a good thing if you’re no friend to the death penalty, however, which is arguably the higher road to take in these cases, Trump or no Trump. Regardless:
The very real worry here now is that none of this seems to matter to Trump. Not in living memory has America seen a president less concerned with how badly he’s tarnishing America’s brand throughout the world — “brand” being, of course, a word that should mean something to Mr. Trump.
It’s patently obvious that American presidents are less lawmakers and more tastemakers. They’re supposed to be the best, brightest, and fairest-of-mind citizens we can find and they’re supposed to go forth and demonstrate our values to the world.
Set aside the legal problems for a moment, which are considerable, and ask the more important question: What does Donald Trump say, with and without speaking, about the values of Americans? When he complains he can’t simply compel the Justice Department to harass his political rivals, where does that leave us?
It leaves me not quite daring to say the word “dictator” out loud, because this is America and stuff like that Can’t Possibly Happen Here.