God save the president-king

A reflection and round up on one of the worst Supreme Court decisions in US history. Plus: Good news from France?

In three days, Americans all over the world will celebrate the declaration of war against monarchy and the eventual triumph of a democratic republic. I hope we all have a big extra helping of potato salad, because this might be our last under that tradition. The Supreme Court today ruled, in the extremely aptly named Donald J. Trump v. United States, that the president “must” have “absolute” immunity for all acts committed under his “core constitutional powers,” and some form of immunity — probably also absolute! — for all of his other “official actions.”

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Specifically, the Court ruled, in a 6-3 party-line decision, that any actions that Trump took as part of his attempt to overthrow the 2020 election that could be construed as “official acts” are officially, legally, above the law. These almost certainly include Trump’s conspiracy with Justice Department Jeffrey Clark to both weaponize the Justice Department against his enemies and to draft a letter pushing false allegations of “voter fraud” to state legislatures in battleground states, as well as proposing the submission of fake slates of electors to steal the election from those states’ voters. As Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion:

The indictment’s allegations that the requested investigations were shams or proposed for an improper purpose do not divest the President of exclusive authority over the investigative and prosecutorial functions of the Justice Department and its officials. Because the President cannot be prosecuted for conduct within his exclusive constitutional authority, Trump is absolutely immune from prosecution for the alleged conduct involving his discussions with Justice Department officials.

The justices were only slightly less emphatic in placing Trump above the law for his efforts to force Vice President Mike Pence to drum-major his coup in Congress on January 6, 2021:

Whenever the President and Vice President discuss their official responsibilities, they engage in official conduct. Presiding over the January 6 certification proceeding at which Members of Congress count the electoral votes is a constitutional and statutory duty of the Vice President. Art. II, §1, cl. 3; Amdt. 12; 3 U. S. C. §15. The indictment’s allegations that Trump attempted to pressure the Vice President to take particular acts in connection with his role at the certification proceeding thus involve official conduct, and Trump is at least presumptively immune from prosecution for such conduct.

There’s more, but it’s almost pointless to recount it all. The point is that, at the judicial level at least, the Republican overthrow of democracy is complete. It’s a process that began in some ways as revenge for Watergate. Indeed, under today’s ruling, the facts unearthed in the “smoking gun” recording, in which Nixon signed off on White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman’s plan to use the CIA to end an FBI investigation into the Watergate break-in, would be granted either absolute or “presumptive” immunity. (Poor Tricky Dick, resigned for nothing.)

In other ways, it can be traced back to the reactionary 1930’s fervor sparked by the New Deal, in which American plutocrats — rich off the spoils of a militarized empire that overthrew governments all over the world — fantasized (and in at least one case seem to have started plotting) about overthrowing their own democratically elected government, and install a dictator who would turn back the clock to the Lochner era, in which corporations and the uber-wealthy had effectively unlimited power. (Pardon the plug but you can read all about that in this award-winning tome.)

Wherever you want to start the story, we are now where we are. There will be much more to say about it in the days and weeks that come. For now, I want to point you to a few other voices today:

“These are not justices; these are Trump cronies. This is not legal reasoning; this is vandalism.”

— Adam Serwer was quick out of the gate with an excellent take. Here’s a gift link to read it in The Atlantic.

“The United States will have to make a decision: It can either continue to respect the legitimacy of this Court and view its decisions as the final word on all matters affecting the polity – or it can have democracy and a functioning state capable of dealing with modern society. But not both.”

— Thomas Zimmer in his newsletter

“The Court ruling today is terrible but expected. I will just gently remind everyone that the election hasn’t happened yet. We shouldn’t assume the worst outcome as a foregone conclusion. That only encourages more apathy than many are already feeling.”

— Roxane Gay, giving a bit of hope via Bluesky

“Where does that leave us? With a huge hole blown in this particular indictment and seeds sown for a future American dictator.”

— Mark Joseph Stern in Slate

“Roberts essentially ignores the purpose of separation of powers, which was not to create entirely separate spheres of action but to prevent the emergence of unchecked authority. Instead, he says, separation of powers demands unchecked authority.”

— Jamelle Bouie, also on the Twitter alternative

And finally:

“With fear for our democracy, I dissent.”

— Justice Sonia Sotomayor, today.

Also, worth possibly recapping what I wrote about the illegitimacy of this particular — and particularly corrupt — Supreme Court. While much attention is and should rightly be paid to the incredible three justices that Trump smuggled onto the court (one of whom thanks to Mitch McConnell’s unprecedented theft of a seat from Barack Obama), it shouldn’t be missed that the most extreme voices on the court are the legacy of Bushes père et fils. As was John Roberts, who today may have surpassed Roger B. Taney, the author of Dred Scott, as the worst chief justice in American history:

The one piece of good news on the day — and it’s a slight one — is that one country’s otherwise bitterly opposed liberal and left wings seem to be doing something to stop an outright fascist takeover. It is in France, where it seems some centrist allies of Emmanuel Macron are quitting the parliamentary race and throwing their support to the left candidates, in hopes of denying the neo-collaborationist Rassemblement National, or National Rally, a majority in the next French legislature:

There is a very clear lesson to learn here for Americans. And we need to learn it fast, on both sides of the liberal/left divide.

I’ll give the last word and the award for best advice to Talia Lavin, whose excellent-looking new book on the rise of Christian nationalism is available for pre-order:

Jacques-Louis David: L'Empereur Napoleon se couronnant lui-même (The Emperor Napoleon crowns himself) (Paris, musée du Louvre)

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