In the wake of the FBI's raid on Donald Trump, leading Democrats have repeated the refrain that “Nobody is above the law.” Throughout the 2010s, any progressive worth his salt knew for a fact that some people were above the law. One could see it in the way Haliburton and KBR operated in Iraq, or the way the DNC cheated Bernie Sanders out of a victory in the 2016 primary. But these things have been forgotten amid the newly discovered belief that the system always works and is always neutral.
Of course, many are probably aware that a rubicon is being crossed with the investigation of Trump. Andrew Cuomo, the former governor of New York, made his reservations quite clear, demanding that the Department of Justice “immediately explain the reason for its raid.” Andrew Yang was more circumspect, but nevertheless tweeted that this raid would simply prove Trump's point in the eyes of millions of Americans: The establishment is against him, and as Trump himself would hasten to add, it’s against him because it’s against you.
Behind the immediate question of whether the Department of Justice will indict Trump lurks a much more ominous question, one that speaks to a chronic problem rather than an acute one. What will happen to America once its last reserves of political legitimacy run out?
Some people have argued that the way the 2020 election was handled—with officials making arguably illegal changes to electoral procedures, and social-media companies coordinating with Democrats to censor damaging stories—demonstrates the strength and self-assurance of the people who openly brag about coming together to “fortify” the election. If we live in an oligarchy anyway, if “democracy” is just a silly story we tell the plebs, then what exactly is the harm in dropping the act?
Well, here one should consider the case of Mexican strongman and de facto dictator, Porfirio Díaz. After coming to power in 1876, and then briefly handing over the presidency to a close political ally from 1880 to 1884, Díaz ruled Mexico uncontested for 30 years. The “democratic elections” during the Porfiriato, as it came to be known, were just for show. Díaz selected the winners and losers; the votes didn’t matter. But still, Díaz never stopped holding elections. At no point in his decades-long reign did he simply “drop the act” and declare himself “Most Serene Highness,” as Santa Anna had done. Don Porfirio had no intention of ending up like his ousted predecessor. He might not have needed elections to pick the governors and judges of Mexico, but he did need the other function elections serve, which is to shore up legitimacy. Far from being useless or obsolete, elections were necessary to the Porfiriato. They were the story that allowed everyone in Mexico to pretend the emperor wasn’t naked. A “democratically elected” Porfirio Díaz was at least theoretically acceptable to most Mexicans—as long as the system he ruled over worked tolerably well—in a way a self-declared dictator wouldn’t be.
Every political system is dependent on some sort of passive acceptance and consent from its subject population. The tsar never had enough cossacks to control the situation if everyone got fed up. The Stasi never had enough agents to prevent the Berlin Wall from falling if all of East Germany decided that it had had enough. The lesson of Porfirio Díaz, and a thousand historical figures like him, is that you never want your system to get to a point where the only thing propping it up is the threat of violence. A system propped up solely by naked force is like an engine without lubrication; it destroys itself in short order, because it cannot survive the friction it generates.
The most troubling aspect of political life in America today is not that elections are being stolen, or that elections barely change anything because the deep state calls the shots. All of that could be said of Mexico during the Porfiriato, a period in which Mexico was fairly stable. Diaz stole elections all the time, but he did so while respecting the functions those elections were supposed to have, which was to shore up legitimacy for his rule. As long as Díaz made sure that the most incompetent and hated politicians lost or were reassigned, people were fine with pretending that the emperor was clothed. When he started failing to do so, the system he had ruled for decades quickly broke apart.
What is really worrying about America today is not that everyone isn’t equal before the law, or that people cheat, or that dollars count more than votes. These things are normal. What isn’t normal, what is worrying, is the glee with which many in America celebrate each new step guaranteed to make larger and larger slices of the population stop believing in the system's legitimacy. It’s things like Hillary Clinton selling merchandise with the slogan “But Her Emails” to celebrate the FBI’s raid on Donald Trump.
Were Trump to disappear tomorrow, the FBI raid on Mar-a-Lago would perhaps become politically irrelevant. But the sort of thinking that produced it, and the sort of ignorance of history and lack of care for the future that moves people to defend it, wouldn’t disappear. Like a self-driving Tesla, American elites are happily driving straight into a brick wall at full speed, seemingly because nobody ever taught them what happens when the brick wall is hit.