Do not look for facts in political discourse. Facts may exist in trials at court, but they are not a meaningful concept in politics. Evidence may be a meaningful concept in legal studies, but it matters little in political rhetoric. In politics and rhetoric, only persuasion counts. Persuasion may use facts and evidence as tools, but persuasion has many other means at its disposal. These include deception and deceit.
Plato distrusted poets like Homer, not because Homer practiced deceit, but because poets do not deal in truth as such. Poets deal in myths, which politicians readily adopt if they advance their interest, but reject when they do not. Citizens ought to be similarly cautious in their expectations for politics. Politicians fashion American myths of representative democracy, justice under law, and military glory for their own ends.
Another critical confusion exists, perhaps because we elect politicians to create and administer laws. Because politicians are concerned with power, they are not concerned with justice. Yet that is the purpose of laws: to assure justice. Politicians, now legislators and administrators, say they cannot assure rule of law without power to enforce compliance with statutes they enact. Yet manifestly, politicians speak about rule of law only when that is convenient. Their real object is to serve their own interest, which runs directly contrary to legal rules, and to justice.
Citizens ought to be similarly cautious in their expectations for politics, as politicians fashion American myths of greatness for their ends.
The cloak of law that we lay over power works in normal times. Think of the stately buildings we have for the Supreme Court, the Capitol, and the White House. Architecture weaves the visual cloak: legitimacy and acceptance always visible to the eye. Occasionally powerful people poke their heads out from underneath the cloak, to remind us what happens underneath. We saw that happen during Nixon’s presidency. We saw it again, in entirely different circumstances, when President Clinton reminded us how men with power treat women without power.
A disorienting element of Trump’s presidency is that he throws legal forms into the dustbin every day. He treats the sacred cloak with disdain. People worry about how we risk treating this president as normal, but that is impossible, as normal is when powerful people hide what they do under legal forms. Trump is brazen about overthrowing these forms. He brought pussy-grabbing into the White House, and will not let us forget it.
If you want to see how power operates for real, watch a strongman.
If you want to see how power operates for real, watch a strongman. Watch Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Kim Jong-un in North Korea, Vladimir Putin in Russia, or Donald Trump in the United States. They all operate in systems that need no legal covers. They all believe that justice depends on their own rectitude.
In the United States, legal forms slough off slowly. You saw it happen when George W. Bush’s people produced legal memos to justify torture. His memos, written in the Department of Justice no less, actually used the word torture, in documents designed to make what is illegal, legal. You could not ask for a better illustration of legal cover. Yet since the crime was so extreme, naturally the disguise did not work. Everyone recognized the waterboard for what it was: political power exerted for political ends. No one bothered to pretend otherwise, especially after we unveiled the CIA’s worldwide torture regime.
Even if Trump’s appearance on the scene dismays many, we can be grateful for his daily reminders that ‘he alone can fix things.’ That is the voice of power, not law.
These memos, and more particularly the crimes they tried to justify, prepared the way for Donald Trump. If you like angel mythology, you might say George W. Bush was one of the fallen angels, Donald Trump Lucifer himself. We do not have to go that far, though, to make distinctions among law, justice, power, and interest. The present point is simply that we misunderstand politics and law – seriously misunderstand these concepts of government – if we liken the two, or imagine that one serves the other. They do not.
Law and politics exist at odds with one another, no matter how ingrained the belief that we can make power serve good ends. Power destroys its victims, and the people who wield it. Law cannot prevent that, no matter how stately, stable, and impressive our courthouses appear. Even if Trump’s appearance on the scene dismays many, we can be grateful for his daily reminders that he is the man, the only one who can make things right. That is the voice of power, not law.