Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Is a president really the supreme chieftain?

Timothy Snyder is a very fine historian of the eastern reaches of Europe, at least insofar as I can discern.  I've audited online his Yale course on the history of Ukraine and written about many of his many books. I'm no credentialed expert, but I can often sniff out when an historian is weakly grounded; Snyder is the real thing.

Snyder does something else which is uncommon, and considered suspicious, among professional historians. He seeks to reach into and describe the underlying mythic structure of the realities and events he chronicles. Respectable historians are supposed to stick just the facts.

But I think Snyder enlightens by going deep, reaching insights beyond the surface. Here he describes of our current American democratic (small "d") predicament:

The political theory of Trump's [January 6] coup attempt is that all that matters is the chieftain.  He does not have to win an election, because the chieftain has the right to rule simply because he is the chieftain.  Requiring Trump to win an election is thus a provocation.  The claim that he should leave office when he loses an election justifies revenge.  And of course retribution is Trump's platform.
The legal theory of Trump's coup attempt, made explicit in argument before the Supreme Court, is that the chieftain is immune to law.  There is magic around the chieftain's person, such that he need respond only to himself.  The words "presidential immunity" are an incantation directed to people in black robes, summoning them to act as the chieftain's shamans and confirm his magical status.
Some of the people in black robes, Supreme Court justices, like being shamans. Our shamans are allowed to take bribes from those who support the chieftain, and also allowed to claim that as magicians, people unlike others, they are unaffected by them. If there is any doubt, our shamans tell us, they can be trusted to be judges in their own case.
Shamans thus installed will protect their chieftain, and surround him with their magical aura. Unlike other courts, the Supreme Court can make things up as it goes along, and there has been a good deal of that lately, especially on the part of Mr. Alito. Its members can claim fidelity to the words of the Constitution, then cast all that aside when the chieftain is threatened.
To contemplate "presidential immunity," as the shamans are now doing, is to cast aside the rule of law and summon up the ghost of revenge culture.  It is constitutionally ridiculous to say that the person whose responsibility is to execute the laws is above them.
But the problem is deeper than that.  If any individual is untouched by law, that individual can be expected to shift the entire society back towards revenge.  Trump openly affirms this. His entire platform is retribution — retribution against others for the crime that he himself committed. Once we replace law with revenge, there will be no way to hold him back. ...
This June, we await the decision of the Supreme Court on whether the former president is legally immune from prosecution for inciting and encouraging insurrection against election results and against the Constitution. Lower courts say "no way!" We are about to find out how far our black robed shamans have strayed from the American promise. 
Or perhaps they are best represented by some other animal ...

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