Donald Trump's opponents will need to find common ground that can confront Trump's flouting of justice. The problem is that Democrats are split between those who pay lip service to the law, and those who genuinely demand justice.

The contest for which Democrat will take on Trump begins in just a few months. The centrist liberal candidates and leftist socialist camp are already preparing for a battle over who will be the candidate. What do you need to know? Well, here’s a start: A contest between the rule of law and the rule of justice define the left/liberal split in the United States. 

Liberals want the rule of law preserved, but the rule of law is not necessarily justice. President Donald Trump’s legal downfall for fraud would be a victory, essentially, for property rights, but not human rights. 

The two sides here, liberals and leftists, have so far diverged on what matters more, law or justice. Justice for liberals has always been a long-term, aspirational, goal, while the rule of law itself was already there to enforce.

For the left, however, the rule of justice has been an immediate priority. The law demands obedience, but justice demands recompense. Somebody has to lose.

The reflexive liberal reaction to the populist left’s calls for justice is to say leftist demands mirror President Trump’s irrational white nationalist calls for a purge of foreigners or his political rivals. 

This is a misperception at best and a falsehood at worst. Just because Trump calls for retribution against “The Swamp” does not mean he demands justice. Justice is not vengeance. Justice rights a wrong. Punishment is a means to end, not an end in itself. 

The left proposes a form of justice, redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor, that puts the rich at risk. But this is not the same as alt-right rhetoric that puts asylum seekers in cages. 

Thanks to an Internet that helps it thrive, right-wing populism is here to stay. But a left populism can be just and ethical, especially if it holds to account excesses by employees of the financial services industry. Trump’s populism, by comparison, is essentially nihilistic, hawking nativism as vengeance against the innocent, but falsely calls it justice against “illegals.”

Why does this kind of rhetoric gain followers? It’s because the American public craves justice for inequality and corruption. Trump and Hillary Clinton both offered false or weak interpretations of justice, and many voters, seeing this, stayed home. Nevertheless, it’s up to representatives in Congress to deliver justice, as that’s what they are elected to do. 

The left offers a narrative that has an enemy, just as Trump does, but the nature of that enemy matters and distinguishes the two sides. Liberals pretend not to see this difference, as what they are focused on is the rule of law.

Liberals don’t see as much difference between justice and law. After all, if laws are unjust, democracy can fix it. But this mentality denies the depth to which American democracy is broken, not only by systemic voter suppression but by the perverse relationship between money and access to political power. When wealthy corporations write legislation, and it passes, that shows how far from the people are from crafting laws for themselves. 

Disdain for this distance powers both right and left rhetoric. What’s different again is their solution to the problem. The populist left proposes an end to corporate political contributions. 

The populist right proposes a kind of purge at the top, but no solution for the underlying problem: money in politics. 

What scares the donor class, however, is not so much slogans of “Lock her up!” against Clinton, but rather an end to access provided by perfectly legal donations. The donor class, the millionaires and billionaires who vote with their bank accounts, has every reason to suppress the populist left more than the populist right. 

The populist right in the United States might collapse sooner than anybody thought, because it is generally unskilled at fascism, with a leader who has the Machiavellian skills of a starfish. 

A successful fascist presidency would require a level of organisation that the Trump White House doesn’t demonstrate, and appears incapable of learning. In a functioning fascist state, public-private partnerships construct grand Pharaonic projects for the sake of national prestige and economic development. 

Fascist politics are not necessary for building roads, but building roads is essential to fascist politics. A wall with Mexico, an unpopular idea and useless to most people, polls show, is not the public infrastructure project that will win Trump his reich, and probably not a second term in office.  

So where do law and justice come into play here? Where do they break through from political philosophy to public policy? 

If Democrats do manage to win back the presidency in 2020, they must establish the rule of justice and not just the rule of law. The grotesqueries of the Trump presidency do not cancel out the legalised bribery that has so long run Washington. 

What 2020 requires is nothing short of a reawakening in American politics, a progressivism that targets corruption beyond just Trump, and also acknowledges how toxic money is to politics. 

The rule of law isn’t enough. The supremacy of justice is what is needed to erase Trump’s legacy. When evaluating candidates over the next twelve months for that momentous task, think about what matters more. 

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