Trump didn't kill the rule of law — plutocrats did

President Donald TrumpDonald TrumpMyPillow CEO to pull ads from Fox News Haaland, Native American leaders press for Indigenous land protections Simone Biles, Vince Lombardi and the courage to walk away MORE shows contempt for the rule of law and violates rules to protect himself and his family. His secretary of the Treasury has refused to give Congress Trump’s tax returns, and his attorney general refused to appear before the House Judiciary Committee. We could list many other examples to prove the point. But the larger point is this: Trump’s relationship to the crumbling rule of law is like a looter picking through a collapsed building. He didn’t bring the building down; he is simply looting the wreckage of a country that once served as the beacon of democracy and rule of law for the world.

In classical jurisprudential theory, there are two types of bad acts, known by their Latin names: malum prohibitum (bad because it’s against the law) and malum in se (bad in itself). For example, speeding is wrong because it’s illegal, but murder is wrong in itself. In a society governed by the rule of law, we all feel that we have a stake. When the rules are administered more or less fairly, we refrain from doing some things we’d like to do, that may be against the rules but that we don’t think are morally wrong, because we are invested in the society that thrives under its rules. We view following those rules as the price for living in a society that works.


When people believe that the system and its rules are fundamentally just, they tend to follow them, even when they don’t agree with them. When they don’t believe that, it’s everybody for themselves and the whole society begins to rot from the inside out, until there’s nothing left but a kleptocracy and the exercise of raw power. Failed states from the Roman Empire to Venezuela come to mind as examples.

So, did Trump, with his apparent contempt for the rule of law, bring our orderly system down? Absolutely not. The plutocrats did. The financial and political elites destroyed the rule of law and Trump is just partying in the wreckage. For more than 30 years, the uber-wealthy have been rewriting the tax code, feeding at the loophole and subsidy troughs, enjoying preferential capital gains rates, destroying labor unions and bankrupting pension funds. They’ve off-shored their incomes and taken nearly 100 percent of the economic gains, leaving working people with stagnant wages.  

They enacted bipartisan bankruptcy “reform” that favored credit card companies over working people. Their legislators approved tax write-offs for corporate jets, but not child care. IRS budget cuts occurred over more than a decade, under both parties, gutting the agency. Now rich people don’t get audited for tax cheating while the working class continues to pay through withholding. The plutocrats took all of our nation’s economic gains for themselves. This occurred in large and small ways well before Trump’s arrival in the White House.  

But if you had to identify one thing that most contributed to the destruction of our system and its laws, it would be the 2008 financial crash and the response to that recession. When the “banksters” brought our financial system to its knees in 2008-2009, the bipartisan consensus was to rescue the banks and let the homeowners drown. And maybe they had to bail out the banks to keep the global financial system afloat. Sure, the plutocrats rigged the system, took all the gains and then, when they were about to lose because of fraud and hubris, they were bailed out by the taxpayers.

The killing blow came when Congress, with a Democratic supermajority and Democratic president, told American homeowners: No bailout for you. If you lost your house to a mortgage default, too bad. If you declared bankruptcy and had to move in with your parents, too bad.

Those who so devastated our country that we have not yet recovered haven’t been held accountable. Instead, they’ve been feted, catered to and, most recently, had their taxes cut even more. All this has unmasked the corruption that undergirds our system. The sense of fairness that’s essential for supporting a system of rules and laws was destroyed long before Trump came along. He didn’t create the world we are living in; he just knew how to exploit it.

If the Davos set wants to know how we got to this moment, where a U.S. president can openly flout the law and get away with it, all they need to do is look into their gilded mirrors, purchased through the Troubled Asset Relief Program, for an answer.

Krystal Ball is the liberal co-host of “Rising,” Hill.TV’s bipartisan morning news show. She is president of The People’s House Project, which recruits Democratic candidates in Republican-held congressional districts of the Midwest and Appalachia, and a former candidate for Congress in Virginia. Follow her on Twitter @krystalball.