Did you hear?
Today came news that the state of Maryland and the District of Columbia have filed suit against Failed President Trump. They’ve charged him with violating the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution – that’s the one that prohibits a president from receiving payments from a foreign government.
The Great Trumpkin, of course, has, indeed, violated that clause with gusto, refusing to let go of his luxury hotels, which are frequently patronized by foreign officials.
News of the lawsuit brings to mind something that fascinated and troubled me last year, as I listened to an audiobook of Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here. As you may know if you stayed awake in English class, Lewis’ book, published in 1935 as Hitler was building his war machine, imagined a dystopian future in which fascism came to America. The intriguing thing about Lewis’ story was that when authoritarianism comes to this country, it comes, not by force of arms but, in a very real sense, by force of apathy.
In other words, as the established norms and laws, the things that theoretically make America America, are trampled upon by the incoming dictator, a populist presidential candidate named Berzelius Windrip, there is a sense of America shrugging in response. For all the newspaper editorials fulminating against this outrage, there is a sense of ordinary people looking the other way, sheepishly surrendering their rights, freedoms, and national identity in exchange for the candidate’s magical promises.
It’s a narrative that suggests how fragile our institutions really are. It’s a reminder that they exist only because we all agree they exist, have force only because we agree they do. And that they are threatened the moment we don’t.
Lewis’ fear was that that unspoken agreement, the social covenant by which we live, would prove unequal to the task of restraining a brazen and charismatic strongman. Which is precisely the situation we now face.
The good news is that our institutions are, in this early going at least, proving more formidable than we might have thought. The courts have decisively stopped the failed president from implementing his Muslim travel ban. Though Trump fired its director, the FBI is still looking into whether his campaign improperly colluded with the Russians and seeking to ascertain whether the failed president himself sought to derail that investigation. Congress, albeit with morally supine Republicans dragging their feet, is doing the same. Now comes this news out of Maryland and DC.
The best part? For all his brazenness, for all he has done to undermine these institutions, Trump not yet signaled a refusal to be bound by them. It suggests that the things that theoretically make America America are actually rather resident. In an alarming political season where truly good news has been hard to come by, that offers a reason for guarded hope.
Maybe it truly can’t happen here. At least, not yet.