With visions of a perp walk dancing in their heads, many Republicans likely agree with their vice presidential nominee, Mike Pence, that a highlight of Sunday's presidential debate was Donald Trump threatening to unleash the Justice Department on Hillary Clinton. If elected, Trump promised to "instruct the attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look" at Clinton's email issues, later adding that if he were already president, she would "be in jail."
Now, maybe Trump was just reaffirming his stance as a no-nonsense, "law-and-order" candidate. In a Trump administration, there would be no special breaks for the high-ranking or high-born. All would be equal before the law.
Or maybe not.
Far more likely is this: Trump was indulging the Republican Party's collective revenge fantasy about Clinton. She should certainly be imprisoned for something or other, right? Her private server, Clinton Foundation activities, the Benghazi attacks. Maybe Travelgate. Pick one and prosecute already. Verdict first, trial afterward, says the Orange King. "Lock her up!" And while he's at it, President Trump could cook up a reason to toss soon-to-be former President Obama in the clink as well. The internet offers plenty of supposed justifications.
Some on the right, even those who intensely dislike Trump, are hand-waving away Trump's comments as no biggie. This is a mistake. Trump seems to again be suggesting he would run roughshod over various political norms and constitutional limits were he to occupy the Oval Office. And yet Trump remains widely supported by one of America's main two political parties.
Recall Trump threatening Amazon and Washington Post boss Jeff Bezos for the newspaper's coverage of him: "And believe me, if I become president, oh, do they have problems. They're going to have such problems." Trump has said he would "open up" libel laws so government officials could sue media critics. Trump would demand the military execute illegal orders to kill the families of terrorists. Trump would unilaterally slap a tax on the products of companies who build plants in foreign countries. A Trump election loss would be a clear sign of electoral fraud. Trump says he believes in "law and order"? Well, he has the "order" part down, at least. But only his self-interested version.
Put aside for the moment — but only a moment — the possibility a President Trump might actually turn America into a quasi-authoritarian state where, say, the National Security Agency would be employed against political opponents and dissatisfied Trump University students. Instead, focus on a more likely, down-to-earth impact of Trump normalizing banana republic behavior. The American dollar is the world's reserve currency, and U.S. Treasuries its safe haven investment. One reason is that America, despite what Trump would have voters believe, is a fabulously wealthy nation where households collectively have a net worth of nearly $90 trillion. And ours is not a particularly heavily taxed nation, either. These are big reasons why markets seem unconcerned about the $20 trillion federal debt.
But America's wealth isn't found just in its machines, natural resources, world-class companies and universities, and inventive, entrepreneurial people. It's also in the American system of rule of law. Government is supposed to follow the rules. And political dissent isn't un-American or treasonous. Contracts and property rights are enforced. The political system is predictable in all the best ways. America ranks high on various "rule of law" indices. Russia and China, whose "strong" leaders Trump admires, don't.
It's hard to imagine global investors — not to mention everyone else who still sees the U.S. as a beacon of freedom, justice, and openness — would continue looking at America and treating its financial assets the same way if Trump were president. As it is, Trump says the U.S. economy is a "big, fat, ugly bubble" ready to pop.
Some Trump advisers, such as Roger Stone, greatly admire another "law and order" Republican, Richard Nixon. But, interestingly, one of the articles of impeachment against Nixon was that he interfered with the Department of Justice and FBI. Of course back then, the GOP was ultimately willing to stand up to Nixon, even though he was a Republican. Would today's GOP do the same, knowing that many panicked, rank-and-file Republicans think this is the "Flight 93 election" where only Trump in the Oval Office will prevent the Republic's demise? Even if they did, it might be to no avail. As Brookings scholar Benjamin Wittes explains, the executive power of the entire federal government is vested in the presidency: "There is, in fact, only one way to tyrant-proof the American presidency: Don't elect tyrants to it."
Trump has called 2016 America a "third-world nation." A Trump presidency in 2017 would be a step toward making that insult a reality.