Trump's lessons for defending the rule of law

Trump's lessons for defending the rule of law

A new show currently airing gives fresh meaning to the term reality TV. Call it American Democracy: Clear and Present Danger. It should be required viewing.

Almost 18 months after the Jan 6, 2021, storming of the US Capitol, a House of Representatives select committee is publicising the findings of its detailed investigation into the event. The committee has interviewed over 1,000 witnesses and examined 125,000 documents. It has held six hearings so far in June, with a view to trying to bring former President Donald Trump to justice.

Vice chair Liz Cheney, the committee's senior Republican (and one of only two GOP representatives willing to serve on it), summed up the panel's conclusion: "President Trump summoned the mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack." Showcasing evidence implicating the former president, the committee painted a picture of a premeditated attack on democracy rather than a spontaneous crowd combustion, and in which Mr Trump appeared to directly encourage violence.

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and John Eastman, a conservative lawyer and academic, seem to have been the "brains" behind the attempted coup (cooking up a plot that Mr Trump knew to be illegal), while the far-right Proud Boys and Oath Keepers provided much of the brawn. The focus of their efforts was to pressure then-Vice President Mike Pence to refuse to certify the 2020 presidential election, which Mr Trump lost to Joe Biden. A shocking revelation from the hearings this week indicates that Mr Trump, himself, sought to join the mob.

Several former Trump loyalists have testified against him. Former attorney general Bill Barr dismissed Mr Trump's election lies as "bullshit". Mr Trump's daughter, Ivanka, and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, effectively stated that they accepted the result (prompting a vitriolic rant from Mr Trump).

The conservative federal judge Michael Luttig warned that Mr Trump is "a clear and present danger" to American democracy. Yet the Republican Party continues to close ranks around the former president. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is boycotting the hearings; most Republicans are ignoring them and stonewalling.

Mr Trump's political modus operandi contains a lesson about the power of emotional engagement. Back in 2016, many pundits were sceptical about Mr Trump's electoral prospects, given his lack of a strategy that they could recognise. They searched in vain for logic and facts in his incoherent speeches, but missed the emotional thread in his messages that bound voters to him.

The psychologist Paul Ekman identifies six basic emotions: fear, anger, sadness, joy, disgust and surprise. Mr Trump is to anger what Mozart was to G minor. And he seems to have an innate capacity to transmit his anger to his supporters. That was Mr Trump's masterstroke in 2016: substituting feelings for facts.

The debate about the primacy of "feeling" versus "thinking", including a heated and high-profile exchange between the social psychologist Robert Zajonc and the psychologist Richard Lazarus, was central to psychology in the 1980s. Zajonc made a compelling case for "affective primacy", establishing that, in many cases, including in decision-making, affect (roughly speaking, emotion) appears to precede cognition, with justifications often being produced ex post.

Emotional responses are, by design, quick, automatic and pervasive -- and tend to overpower conflicting judgments. In his seminal 1872 work, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, Charles Darwin argued that our affective responses are on a continuum from nonhuman animals and derive from split-second reactions that emerged as existential requirements of survival (for example, to escape a predator). As psychologists currently understand it, "organisms had reflex-like responses that allowed them to respond to environmental threats … and emotional expressions were residues of these responses". It is this survival instinct to which Mr Trump appeals.

But our nonhuman ancestral inheritance does not condemn us to be ruled by our baser instincts. The philosopher David Hume argued that moral sentiment was a better guide than reason alone. We may know that a particular action might harm many people, but unless we care about those people or about human well-being, that awareness does not guide our action.

With both interest in the Capitol riot and perceptions of Mr Trump's culpability declining, the Jan 6 committee faces an uphill task. However, about 20 million Americans tuned in for the first hearing, well above the 4.6 million to 7.6 million who saw the season finale of Mr Trump's The Apprentice. At the moment, the score looks to stand at Mr Trump: 0, Rule of Law: 1. ©2022 Project Syndicate

Antara Haldar is Associate Professor of Empirical Legal Studies at the University of Cambridge.

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