Trump and the Rule of Law

By James Jimenez

The recent conviction of former American President Donald J. Trump provides a particularly interesting case study in the rule of law. The idea of the rule of law essentially asserts that every individual, regardless of status, is subject to the law’s authority; that everyone is held to the same standards of accountability, and that justice is applied without fear, bias, or favor. In a democracy, the rule of law is an essential mechanism for holding leaders accountable and maintaining public trust in the legal and political systems, but let’s be honest: the idea that everyone is subject to the law’s authority, is often sorely tested here at home, and it is good to be reminded – once in a while – of how things should be, as opposed to how they are.

Equality before the law

Donald Trump’s legal troubles have been a subject of intense public and media scrutiny, given both his status as a former president and presumptive Republican nominee for the upcoming Presidential elections this November. His conviction for 34 counts of falsifying business records in New York, resulting from a seven-week jury trial, highlights several key aspects of how the principle of supremacy of the rule of law actually operates.

Despite previously holding the highest elected office in the land, Trump was investigated, charged, and tried just like any other citizen. This was, of course challenged by his partisans who claimed that, as former President, he should have received some sort of special treatment. In truth, some would argue that the prosecution and the court did provide preferential treatment in that defendant Trump got away with doing and saying things no other criminal defendant would have been allowed to. Nevertheless, because the core judicial process remained unaltered for the defendant, this trial underscored the principle that legal standards apply to everyone, irrespective of their political power or influence.

One essential element that this conviction would have been impossible without, was the existence of an independent judiciary. Free from political interference, the court was able to ensure that the legal outcome – conviction – was reached based on evidence and legal merit, rather than political expediency.

Hand in hand with an independent judiciary, the transparency of the entire process played a key role. Extensively covered by the media, the entire judicial process was conducted with a high degree of transparency. This allowed the public to witness the wheels of justice in motion, and to a certain extent, contributed to the predictability of the outcome. There were no deus ex machina events that gave rise to unexpected judgments, just the orderly progression of things that logically and unsurprisingly resulted in the eventual outcome.

What does this mean for democracy

Objectively speaking, Donald Trump’s conviction emphasizes the resilience of democratic institutions and the importance of upholding the rule of law. More than that, it sets out several key considerations that underpin democratic governance:

First, deterrence of misconduct. By holding such a powerful and influential person to account for his actions, the conviction deters future misconduct by everyone. As the saying goes – if they can do this to a president, they can do it to you. Speaking particularly of public officials, the conviction of a former president sends the message that abuse of power will not go undiscovered and will not go unpunished. Ultimately, this will promote ethical conduct in public office.

Second, it strengthens public trust. When the law is applied effectively and without bias, public trust in the system is enhanced. Citizens will be more likely to have faith in the government, thereby fostering the emergence of an engage and well-informed electorate.

And third, the ensures the survival of democratic norms. At least until they are challenged again. The rule of law acts as a guardrail against the authoritarian tendencies of people in power. To see that the most powerful people can – and will – be held to account before the courts only strengthens the democratic norm that public office is a public trust, and that government officials are servants of the people and not gods with dominion over them.

A beacon of hope and a warning

The conviction of Donald J. Trump happened in a foreign country, under foreign laws, and in a milieu that is foreign to us Filipinos. But it demonstrated the strength of the rule of law within a democracy – the very same principle that we, as a country, say we adhere to. Their processes over there may be very different from ours – the guilty verdict was handed down by a jury composed of the defendant’s peers, for example – but the principles spotlighted are universal. And this landmark outcome can serve as both a beacon of hope for us, and a warning.

Seeing the myth of a powerful man’s impunity being systematically dismantled rekindles our hope that the law truly applies to all, and that justice prevails over power. But it also should put us on alert that the health of the foundations of our democratic society cannot be taken for granted. The fact that there were those who advocated for a different outcome – one premised on holding a person safe from accountability simply because of who he is and the political power he holds – tells us that we need to be vigilant in upholding our democratic way of life.

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