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Rick Rouse

“A toast to virtue, honesty, education of the people, and the rule of law. You can have no country without them.” 1 

--Attributed to John Adams upon signing the Treaty of Paris ending the Revolutionary War on Sept. 3, 1783

“Right now, democracy is on the line...Democracy gave birth to the rule of law, and the rule of law gave birth to Brown v. the Board of Education.”—Cheryl Brown Henderson, daughter of the namesake plaintiff in the Brown v. Board of Education case decided in May 1954…---70 years ago. She made her remarks recently while at the White House to mark the anniversary of the ruling.

Now consider the extraordinary story reported by Josh Dawsey and Maxine Joselow on May 9 in The Washington Post that Trump had told oil executives that if they gave $1 billion to his campaign, he would get rid of all the regulations the Biden administration has enacted to combat climate change. While in the 1920s, President Warren G. Harding’s secretary of the interior, Albert Fall, went to prison for a year for accepting a $385,000 bribe from oilman Edward L. Doheny in exchange for leases to drill for oil on naval reserve land in Elk Hills and Buena Vista, California, and Teapot Dome, Wyoming. Fall was the first former cabinet officer to go to prison, and the scandal was considered so outrageous that “Teapot Dome” has gone down in U.S. history as shorthand for a corrupt presidency.2   

It is difficult to comprehend how Speaker Mike Johnson, third in line for the presidency, and an entourage of GOP representatives can stand in front of the New York District Courthouse to defend a man charged with multiple criminal counts as a true patriot who is being persecuted by the legal system. In reality, they are obstructing justice by trying to influence the jurors and the court of public opinion. Not only that, but former president Trump has promised that if elected in November he will pardon those convicted of participating in the January 6th insurrection and plans to weaponize the Department of Justice to serve as his personal instrument of retribution. . It is as if the Republican party and its presidential nominee have disavowed the fundamental principles of “the rule of law” on which this country was founded.

“Where is the King of America?” Thomas Paine wrote in Common Sense, the 1776 pamphlet that convinced British colonists in North America to cut ties with their king and start a new nation. Paine went on to say: “In America law is king. For as in absolute governments the King is law, so in free countries the law ought to be king; and there ought to be no other.” 3

As Donald Trump and Joe Biden campaign against a global backdrop of rising authoritarianism, this week’s cover of The Economist asks whether Americans are right to fear for their democracy. “When thinking through what a second Trump term would bring, it is hard to avoid veering into either complacency or hysteria. If Americans believe that their constitution alone can safeguard the republic from a Caesar on the Potomac, then they are too sanguine. Preserving democracy depends today, as it always has, on the courage and convictions of countless people all across America—especially those charged with writing and upholding its laws. And yet alarmism is dangerous, too, because national emergencies, real or confected, are the strongman’s ally.” 4

There is no question that our democracy is in peril. 2024 may be among the most significant elections in the history of this Republic. The results may well serve as the death knell to the Great American Experiment and the beginning of an autocracy replacing the rule of law. Or perhaps it could mean an opportunity for a renewal of the founders’ vision of liberty and justice for all. It will be up to us, the voters, to decide our fate.

  1. Episode eight of the series “Franklin.” Apple TV, May 17, 2024.
  2. Reported by Heather Cox Richardson, May 16, 202
  3. ThomasPaine, Common Sense, 1776
  4. The Economist, May 16, 2024