A little over 20 years ago, while sitting in one of the first sessions of a Jurisprudence class at the University of Florida Levin College of Law, Professor Stuart Cohn posed a simple question that took up most of the hour: “what forms the bases of laws?”
As one might expect from a room filled with 100 intelligent soon to be lawyers, the answers varied from inherent morality, to religion, to the natural need for organization to ensure the “civil” in civilization. But as class drew to a close, Professor Cohn provided a simple but still true summation: “our laws are whatever society writ large agrees them to be…”
Within a year of taking that class, 20 years ago this week to be precise, I served as counsel in my very first jury trial, a DUI case, conducted during my internship as a prosecutor in the Eighth Judicial Circuit State Attorney’s Office based in Gainesville. At the close of evidence, as County Judge Jeannie Crenshaw read the jury instructions to six citizens sitting at rapt attention, the final paragraph that she read closed with words that I have now heard over 150 times since in serious criminal cases that I have tried: “For over two centuries we have lived by the constitution and the law…”
Read the standard jury instruction again, but slower: “We…have lived..by the constitution…and the law.”
Inherent in Cohn’s sentence is “agreement,” the acquiescence to legal authority that Professor Cohn described in theory, but as a trial lawyer and political pundit, one that I see applied–and misapplied–all of the time.
I begin today’s blog with my law school reminisces because I contend that one of the greatest threats to the American Republic is the willful and wanton ignorance of the general public writ large about history, civics and yes, the laws that govern us all.
This past week, President Donald Trump traveled to Helsinki, Finland only hours after concluding a contentious NATO summit where he falsely chided members for failing to pay their fair share (fellow members are paying as previously agreed), while calling out Germany’s Angela Merkel for her nation’s deal with Russia regarding natural gas (more on Germany below).
After an unprecedented closed-door session devoid of any senior intelligence officials, Trump emerged from his meeting with Vladimir Putin and held the most horrific press conference perhaps in all time with a Russian/Soviet leader. What made it horrific was obvious–Trump had the unmitigated gall to cast doubt upon the findings of over 30 American intelligence agencies that Russia not only meddled in the 2016 election, but that Russia IS meddling via cyber attacks in the 2018 mid-term election at this very moment.
For the first time since he drew moral equivalence to those who peacefully protested Confederate symbols in Charlottesville, Virginia last year, and those Ku Klux Klan/Neo-Nazi counter protesters who brought violence and mayhem to the same, Trump drew swift bipartisan rebuke and was even blasted mightily by reporters and analysts on the only network that he does not label “Fake News,” which is the Fox network. Yes, by appearing feckless standing next to Putin, Trump drew the ire of Republicans who have sat silent as the president has used Twitter to insult Blacks, Mexicans, Muslims, the disabled and even veterans and their families.
One need not be a psychologist to analyze that the president’s hubris is fueled by several potentially tragic flaws, which include: 1. Trump’s insatiable need to be praised and/or adored; 2. Trump’s insecurity about the legitimacy of his election in 2016; 3. Trump’s admiration for autocrats and strong male foreign dictators.
As to the first, several Trump biographers have written that as a child, Trump was raised by cold parents who were hesitant to heap praise upon their children, thus creating Trump’s need to be liked– one that self-assured people do not have.
As to the second, President Trump is absolutely right that he defeated Hillary Clinton! While the Electoral College results prove this without question, his insecurities create a discomfort that prevents his ability to be confident that he won, while also being confident that Russia, indeed, sought to tip the balance in his favor. Perhaps this insecurity stems from the fact that while he loves to Tweet about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s “witch-hunt,” that to date, Mueller–a Republican being assisted by mostly Republican underlings–has indicted over 30 individuals including his former National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn, who has been convicted; his campaign manager Paul Manafort, who soon will be convicted, and is investigating his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, who has taped conversations with the president that could provide probable cause that Trump conspired to commit campaign finance violations by authorizing and/or not reporting hundreds of thousands of dollars in payoffs to former paramours to keep the relationships secret during the election season.
Knowing this, and circling back to the laws and our federal and state constitution being agreed upon for over two centuries, America, my friends, is in trouble.
America is in trouble because President Trump, similar to years of advocacy by Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and other non-college graduates who are neither learned in history, politics or law, but who wax on for hours each day filling the minds of similarly uneducated millions of listeners with anarchy, is pushing his followers to believe that the First Amendment of the Constitution is bad (attacks on “Fake News” and calling peaceful protesters like NFL players “unpatriotic”); that Federal law enforcement and national security agencies are incompetent or have a Democratic Party agenda (even when appointed by himself, such as his running attacks on Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions for not being HIS lawyer and shutting down all investigations); and that international trade relations with allies in Canada and Europe are “bad” or “imbalanced,” that remaining in NATO and defending NATO members is a bad thing, and that using flattery when negotiating with autocrats like Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un, will lead to results where his predecessors failed.
These laws, both domestic and foreign, are the hallmarks of the American Republic and the only arbiters of lasting peace across the globe. Particularly in Europe, where Trump et al seem to forget that 70 plus years of NATO peace does not erase the memories that during the 300 years prior, Europe was rife with total war almost on a constant basis. Whether it was England fighting France and Spain, or France fighting the Germanic state of Prussia, Europe bled and burned. Whether it was the rise of nationalism across Europe after Germany’s 1871 unification under Kaiser Wilhelm II that led to World War I–and the eventual failures of the Versailles Peace Treaty that exacted major tolls against a financially bankrupt German Republic, Europe bled and burned. Whether it was the rise of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime that plundered the world into a second great war that was far more costly in lives lost and money than the first, the fact that the United States was dragged into these latter two conflicts and, if Trump’s oft stated goal of isolationism would lead to a power vacuum in Europe, could find us involved in a third–and final–global nuclear conflict, is troubling.
The natural result of Trump’s isolationism is that Europe, in theory, would have to fend for their own security. The one nation that is economically capable of replacing the void the United States would leave is, you guessed it, Germany. Anyone who thinks that is wise to forget that from the end of the Roman Republic when Germanic tribes sacked Rome to Nuremberg, the idea of a reconstituted German military power is not a good look.
To conclude, fidelity to our agreed upon laws and treaties, both at home and abroad, would prevent such a nightmare. But when the American president shows a conscious and deliberate disregard to these laws, and when millions of adoring minions smile and follow because they cannot distinguish the Hapsburgs from the Hatfields (or McCoys), or the Hohenzollerns or the Romanovs from Honey Boo Boo and Rascal Flatts, we are in greater peril than most will acknowledge.