Donald Trump's Anti-American Contempt for the Law

When Donald Trump says that he thinks the Central Park Five, wrongfully convicted of rape as teenagers, are guilty despite the evidence, he reveals himself as someone with no respect for the system he wants to run.

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Oct 7 2016, 8:20pm

Trump likes the Ameircan flag, but the American court system, not so much. Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

You would think that someone who has spent a big-league amount of effort trying to become the ruler of a country would also be familiar with that country's laws, but that is because you do not think like Donald Trump. It's very difficult to understand how Trump thinks—sifting through all of his tossed-off public statements to divine his true opinions would require the patience of a Talmudic scholar and a graduate degree in doublethink—but one thing we can say for sure is that Trump has an utter contempt for the law.

Having contempt for the law isn't the same thing as being a lawbreaker. I don't know if Trump University—a company Trump promoted but didn't have much oversight of—broke the law, and it also remains to be seen if all the sloppiness surrounding the Trump Foundation rises to the level of a crime.

What contempt for the law means is you don't care about the set of legal norms that binds the country together. It means you reject the idea that the court system's decisions are valid, at least not when they don't conform to your own biases. It means—more on this in a second—that you hate America. That's a bad quality to have when you want to run America, and a bitterly ironic joke when you've made "law and order" one of your catchphrases.

Trump's contempt revealed itself most obviously in a recent statement to CNN where he opined that the Central Park Five—a group of black teenagers who were wrongfully convicted for the 1989 rape of a New York woman, then paid a total of $41 million in 2014—were guilty. "They admitted they were guilty," Trump told CNN. "The police doing the original investigation say they were guilty. The fact that that case was settled with so much evidence against them is outrageous."

The fact that the authorities say you are guilty doesn't mean you are guilty, of course—Trump's companies have been investigated enough for racist practices that he should know that. And the teens' admissions of guilt we now know were false, since another man admitted to the crime in 2002 and DNA evidence showed that he, not the five, was responsible for the rape. Weighing against that evidence and the court's exoneration of them Trump has... what, exactly? Just his own contempt.

Trump has made it clear over and over again that he doesn't care about the system of laws that hold the country together. He's publicly embraced war crimes against terrorism, said a judge was biased against him because the judge had Mexican heritage, proposed a ban on Muslim immigration many experts said was unconstitutional, mused about "opening up" libel laws to make it easier for him to sue people who say nasty things about him, and rambled about how Hillary Clinton should be in prison, even though she wasn't charged with a crime.

As most of those examples suggest, Trump's contempt for the law tends to dovetail with his demonization of brown people. In 1989, during the trial of the Central Park Five, he bought a full-page newspaper ad that implicitly said the teens should be executed if they were found guilty. But back then, Trump was simply a rich guy with an opinion, part of the most entitled demographic in America. The ad was an ugly thing to put out there, with more than a hint of racism, but it was ultimately just a rant by a private citizen who liked to see his name in print.

The best thing about America is that unlike many other countries it doesn't spring out of a shared language or ethnicity but an idea. A good summation, and stay with me here, is in the Steven Spielberg movie Bridge of Spies, when Tom Hanks, that American's American, tells a sneaky federal agent, "What makes us both Americans, just one thing, one, the rule book—we call it the Constitution, and we agree to the rules, and that's what makes us Americans, that's all that makes us Americans."

The rules say that when a court exonerates someone, they're innocent. The rules say that what judges say matters, that the system, if not fair, is at least striving for fairness. Presidents disagree with court decisions all the time, but when they do, they do not delegitimize the judges or accuse them of bias. You may disagree with a court—there's nothing more American than disagreement—but when you do, you go out and do the hard work of changing laws and norms, as activists and lawyers across the political spectrum have done for generations.

Trump's election, if it happened, wouldn't suddenly upend the system. He would still have to work with Congress and the courts to get things done, and it's likely he would face various legal hurdles to, say, bring back waterboarding. But he could do a fair amount of damage by simply running his mouth. What would happen if the president weighed in on a police shooting not to express sympathy during a tragedy but to say that an officer was justified? What about if President Trump went on TV and repeated his claims that Clinton should be imprisoned? Beyond words, would he actually direct his attorney general to look into individual people he doesn't like? That would sound like a ridiculous hypothetical if Trump didn't just imply that five innocent men who have spent two decades in prison should go back in. He would be the first president who actively rebelled against the rules—that is, the things that make up America.

And there's one more question, one that doesn't depend on a Trump victory: If you've spent your whole life bragging about how much you win and spent a whole campaign spitting out conspiratorial nonsense, are you going to concede when the votes show you've lost? Or are things going to get even uglier?

Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.

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