Americans take rule of law for granted at their peril

Jim Chrisinger is a retired public servant living in Ankeny. He served in both Republican and Democratic administrations, in Iowa and elsewhere. He also holds a law degree from the University of California, Berkeley.

Donald Trump and MAGA are tearing down the rule of law, and most Americans don’t understand this threat or its gravity. The Declaration of Independence grounds our entire system of government:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

This system, which America pioneered for the world, depends on everyone being treated equally. No royal, aristocrat, wealthy person, property owner, white person, male, straight person, Christian, or anyone is more equal. We each carry the same weight, and responsibility, in our democracy.

But how does that work? What makes it real? The rule of law.

Equality is only real when we, collectively, enact laws, and our judicial system applies those laws equally to each of us. No one gets a pass, or gets special treatment, or is targeted. That’s what equal means. That’s the rule of law.

Now we all know that this ideal is not the on-the-ground reality today; it was even less so in 1776. Wealthy people get many breaks. Implicit or even overt bias means that many people of color, women, and LBGTQ folks are treated unfairly. But our democracy depends on our continued striving for “equal justice under law,” as carved in the Supreme Court building’s pediment.

If given the chance, Donald Trump and his MAGA authoritarians will blow up equal justice under law. They openly say so. They aren’t subtle.

Trump promises that his Department of Justice will target and prosecute his political enemies. That would also set the precedent for MAGA Republican governors and other public executives across America to do the same. That would criminalize being a Democratic official. This is the definition of a banana republic.

Next, the Project 2025 plan drafted by conservative groups documents how Trump can replace tens of thousands of neutral, non-partisan public servants in federal agencies charged with enforcing laws equally. The new appointees will make decisions based not on professional expertise and the law, but rather on loyalty to Trump and the MAGA agenda. MAGA administrators will favor their own and target opponents. As will MAGA judges, ruling for MAGA plaintiffs and defendants. Testimony of MAGA witnesses will count for more.

Christian nationalists will use the law to elevate their beliefs over those of other religions or no religion, making Christianity, or rather the MAGA version of it, the de facto national religion of the U.S. Christians will be more equal under the law. LBGTQ folks, who are often the targets of MAGA Christians, will be decidedly less equal.

Trump and MAGA will trample our immigration laws to deport millions of migrants who are pursuing their rights under our laws.

The law will protect the free speech rights of MAGA speakers, not opponents. Outspoken critics will find themselves harassed without legal recourse.

When MAGA officials don’t like a business owner, or have designs on that business, they will sic regulators and tax authorities on them to find violations and fine them to make them conform or hound them out of business or get them to sell to a MAGA buyer. This is a favorite tactic of Viktor Orban in Hungary, one of Trump’s role models.

The reverse will happen as well: MAGA businesses will have license to avoid the rules, like being able to pollute, cook the books, or refuse to provide service to those they don’t like.

MAGA followers will receive the government contracts; MAGA opponents will have their license and permit applications denied. MAGA followers will get a pass on traffic tickets from MAGA cops.

MAGA areas will receive better public services, like more police patrols and getting their snow plowed first.

Ultimately, governments at all levels in MAGA jurisdictions will favor MAGA folks and punish opponents.

None of this will be “equal justice under law.”

Trump is already undermining the rule of law. He claims that any prosecution of him is political, and required his mini-me’s to ape his claims in the New York state election interference case. He promises pardons for those he calls “hostages,” who were convicted of crimes after participating in the January 6 insurrection. He has already abused the pardon power to shield himself from accountability. He is laying the groundwork to undermine any election he does not win.

These examples reflect what authoritarian regimes do, now and across history. Don’t believe it can’t happen here; many smart people in Germany thought the same thing in the 1930s. It can happen here.

Each of us faces a choice on November 5. Vote, and help get other people to vote, as if our democracy and the rule of law depends on it, because it does.

Top image: The inscription Equal Justice Under Law as seen on the frieze of the United States Supreme Court building. Photo by Matt H. Wade, available via CC-BY-SA-3.0 at Wikimedia Commons.

About the Author(s)

Jim Chrisinger