I want to frame this question awkwardly. I want to press into something unspoken, unseen, invisible in its obviousness.
When I was asked what to make of our democracy, of this democracy, in the face of the president’s acquittal, I was hard-pressed to find a clear, concise answer. Do I say it’s been broken, abrogated, mutilated? Is this a miscarriage of justice? Is this a descent from normalcy? I can’t tell. I’m not shocked by any of this. Of course this happened. Of course he got away with it. Why?
I’m still unsure. I think what I’m afraid of most is that this is all so easily, so obviously expected. Not in some cynical way that seeks to put the blame on the Republican party as a corrupt body looking to skirt justice. Of course a Republican senate would acquit a Republican president. That’s not the scary thing. I believe such explanations of the blatant obviousness of the situation are simply punditry, explaining away that other obvious thing, the glaring reality we can’t look in the eye, lest it destroy us.
What frightens me is that some of us still hoped that the Republicans in the senate might have seen the error of their ways, might have stood up for what some of us believed was innate to America, innate to democracy, innate to justice. It is a naïvite that unsettles me in its simplicity, in its belief in a common moral Americana that we all supposedly owe ourselves to, cling to, find hope and solace in. It’s a belief in the patently absurd.
Trump, his acquittal, his lawlessness, his vile nature, isn’t American. But it isn’t, at the same time, unamerican. This notion we cling to of a higher set of values in abstractions like justice, truth, the American way, are many faces of a false god, one so obviously dead to historical reality that our continued deference to it in liberal spaces seems like some sort of mass psychosis, one rooted in an internal logic of a want for hope.
America, it has been said, is a flawed democracy, one always progressing toward its own betterment. I can’t really believe this. America is an idea, one that slips between the cracks of imagination and reality and contorts itself in ways that obscure and reveal selectively. America is good, America is just, America is right — true always, spoken only sometimes, never questioned in less than favorable moments. In their collective shame, liberals never seek to blame America as a notion—instead they pain themselves to wonder how they could have fallen so far from the ideal that supposedly transcends history. This idea, of perpetual America, has taken on its own body, its own image.
Like all symbols, all mutable images, it shifts, cortorts, and reforms itself for the sake of its own survival. Every corrective measure of this democracy is supposedly a reversion back to the initial ideal, the ahistorical god; a correction from a slip in the mission. The idea of American justice at its inception was an idea of justice for a select few, in particular privileged, land-owning white men. All others, all people outside that particular niche, were objects to be seen as selectively part of the whole, selectively excluded from it. Women, so far as women constitute a concrete material category, were selectively given power, selectively oppressed, selectively courted as objects of the law’s desire and the law’s derision.
America configured itself as a notion that could sometimes include, sometimes exclude, always positioning itself oh-so tentatively. This is true for Black Americans, Asian Americans, Natives, queer people, Jewish people, poor people, disabled people, on and on into the many receding identites spoken of as sometimes part of, sometimes excluded from, America writ large.
Black folk were, and have remained to a large extent, objects of the law’s control. But when it is convenient, they can be folded into a liberal notion of America’s melting pot, part of this grand, one Americana. Progressively the law includes them as citizens, subjects, voters, but it will always find ways to obscure, exclude, and alienate. American justice evolves to make them flat subjects, equal voters, but finds ways to deny them the vote. American justice, we are told, liberated them to become free citizens. Yet we forget it was American justice, by design, that enslaved them. And yet still it is America’s system of justice that creates the conditions for mass-incarceration, voter disenfranchizement, police abuse, and legally sanctioned mass murder.
The notion of the law as a perfect standard, as something that can be unceremoniously abrogated by one man in one senate trial, is an imagined thing. Presidents before Trump have committed worse crimes. They have killed, plundered, raped, massacred. They have violated basic moral precepts for generations. Presidents have assisted in genocidal programs across this continent. They have tested tools of death, tools of torture, tools of destruction on black and brown people throughout our history. They maintain secret prisons where they torture innocents. In the last decades alone, we have imprisoned families of supposed terrorists.
The current director of the CIA herself oversaw a facility that tortured a pregnant woman ceaselessly. American justice at work, away from here. Not injustice, just this kind of justice. Not abrogated, but whole, in its cruelty, its inconsistency, its evil.
Of course none of these actions committed by senior federal officials were crimes, because the targets of violence and evil were not subject to American law. They were excluded from justice, humanity, personhood, by the law’s ability to conceal, to hide, to obfuscate.
Can we not get a grip? Is it absurd to say that successive generations of war criminals can be celebrated but Trump’s acquittal is extraordinary? What did we charge the president with, anyway? Abuse of power for trying to sway an election?
What of the children who have died in ICE custody, who have been abused and tortured, ripped from their families for the simple crime of crossing a border? A border set by warfare, by death, on land that was conquered and stolen? Is this not a crime, patently? Can we not charge this president with negligence, with abuse, with murder?
American justice does not exist. And yet it is all that exists. American justice conditions what we view as acceptable, what we view as natural, what we view as right, good, moral, true, false, holy, sacred, profane, real and unreal. It conditions who we view as citizen, and who we view as enemy.
And when waves of progress form, when the collective shame of the elite breaks, it takes under its wing new bodies, so as to gaslight us all, so as to pretend it was not American justice that dehumanized them all along.
Justice as perpetual Americana is a conditioning notion, an inheritance of meaning that we play with in perpetuity, sometimes as a tool for liberation, more often as a tool of justification. What we term acceptable, what we understand as just and right and part of the American way is always a condition of what we include and what we discard. And so often abuse, evil, are set to the side of justice’s gaze, so as to become, implicitly, normal, acceptable, and above everything else, fine.
But justice, while a diachronic, strategic body of ideas, sometimes freezes. Sometimes, it takes upon it a body of its own, a caricature of itself that some of us might hold onto for sanity. Liberals, for want of safety or assuredness, cling to an image of justice as flat, as level, as all encompassing; they cling to a piece of the system, a snapshot of moments where justice is good, freeing, right, when it makes us feel stable.
I think that image, that liberatory side of the many faced god before us, was shattered for some in the past week. I am sure that for others, nothing has changed. And for many, they will forget this violation of their want, and will return to their belief that things are right how they are.
Of course our system of justice acquitted a criminal. It does so every day. Justice is not flat, it is not blind. It is a product of the imagination to think it so. If Trump is not condemned for murder, for war-crimes, for rape, for financial infractions, why would he be condemned for anything at all?
My greatest concern, in all of this, is how liberals, and in particular white liberals, could look toward the American past, look toward its abuses, its evil, and imagine that there was ever such a thing as true American justice. It just doesn’t make sense to me.
All of this isn’t to say that we shouldn’t aspire to justice, that we shouldn’t work to create an America that values truth, decency, humanity, and equality. The point I’m trying to make is that America has never done these things, and that to pretend that there is something that has been lost in this Trump fiasco is to ignore a history of corruption, violation, and patent evil.
We can believe in justice, and say that this is a clear violation of the ideal to which we believe we should be holding ourselves. But we cannot say this is a violation of American justice. It is a symptom of it, the natural consequence.
Justice is not flat. It is not equal. Democracy, the belief in a general equality of citizens, the belief that our system of laws and governance should embody that belief, does not exist in America the way we might desire it to. American justice, American law, is a notion; it is not an ideal. And for now, American justice looks like Trump’s acquittal, as it always was bound to.
If you want real justice, real democracy, real humanity, Trump would have been gone a long time ago.
For murdering children.
Don’t forget that.