Donald Trump’s threat to jail Hillary Clinton if he’s elected just underlined why he so admires that “strong leader” Vladimir Putin. No pesky checks on executive power when you operate out of the Kremlin. Send your opponents to Siberia and no one says “boo.”
But here’s what’s even more depressing in this ugly election season — the percentage of voters who cheer as Trump trashes the Constitution. In their anger at a system that appears broken, many Americans embrace Trump’s autocratic values. Even if the Donald loses, their loss of faith in democracy threatens our future.
So hats off to Khizr Khan for reminding us — yet again — about the danger of undermining democratic values.
Khan, you’ll recall is the Pakistani immigrant father of fallen Iraqi war hero Capt. Humayun Khan, who so eloquently denounced Trump’s stance against immigrants and Muslims at the Democratic convention — saying those views betrayed the tenets of the U.S. Constitution. (Trump then made derogatory remarks about Khan’s wife Ghazala, a Gold Star mother.)
This week Khizr Khan was asked on MSNBC about the low point of the second presidential debate, in which Trump vowed that Clinton would “be in jail” if he ran the country.
Clearly agitated, Khan spat out words that every American should repeat daily: “This is not the Congo. This is the United States of America, a country of laws.”
Unlike many Americans, immigrants like Khan appreciate what a difference rule of law makes, even when it is far from perfect in application. Khan emigrated from Pakistan, where the military overthrows civilian governments that displease it. Intelligence agencies operate with impunity and in cahoots with Islamist terrorist organizations, while critical journalists are beaten and sometimes killed.
So the Khans were thrilled to come to a country where the words “rule of law” had a meaning. “We believed in American democracy,” Khan told the convention. He pulled out a pocket copy of the Constitution and asked whether Trump had even read it, including the words “equal protection of the law.”
Khan regularly distributes those pocket Constitutions to ROTC cadets in training to be military officers, and whom he hosts in honor of his fallen son.
That’s why Khan found it so shocking that a presidential candidate would threaten to jail an opponent if he won power. Trump said at the debate that, if he wins, he would instruct his attorney general (no doubt someone such as Chris Christie, who has already declared Clinton “guilty”) to appoint a special prosecutor to look into Clinton’s “situation.” Never mind that, after a thorough investigation, the FBI found no grounds for legal proceedings.
“This candidate has no regard for … the laws of this country,” Khan said in disgust.
What is most egregious about Trump’s pledge is that no “special prosecutor” has ever been used by a president of one party to go after a defeated candidate of another party. As Michael Chertoff, a head of Homeland Security under George W. Bush, put it, this “smacks of … tin-pot dictators in other parts of the world.”
Yet many Americans chant and cheer when Trump shouts: “Lock her up.” Even Trump’s supposedly more rational choice for veep, Mike Pence, praised his threat to jail Clinton as “one of the better moments of the debate.”
Ever so casually, Pence inferred that he viewed America’s vaunted democracy as little different from Moscow’s, or Egypt’s, — where former leaders languish in prison.
Are Trump and Pence even aware that Putin sent his most powerful political opponent, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, to Siberia for 10 years on trumped-up tax charges? Or that a more recent opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, is kept on a leash by having his brother jailed — essentially a hostage — on false charges?
Under Putin, there are no limits when it comes to revenge against opponents. The wonderful opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was assassinated last year near the Kremlin.
But Trump doesn’t care about democratic niceties, as he continues to praise Putin’s leadership qualities. (At the debate he insisted, yet again, that Russia wasn’t behind the hacking of Democratic party officials, even though the U.S. intelligence community has formally charged Russia with responsibility.)
What should worry us even more is that Trump supporters love the idea of jailing his opponents. They cheer when he says, if elected, he would sue federal Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who is overseeing the Trump University case. Trump has accused the judge of bias because of his Mexican ancestry. Never mind separation of powers or independent judiciary.
They cheer when Trump says he wants to change libel laws so he can bankrupt any newspaper that says things he dislikes. Never mind the First Amendment.
They also cheer when he says he will cause “such problems” for Amazon, because its founder, Jeff Bezos, owns the Washington Post, which criticizes him. Shades of Putin, who goes after businessmen who displease him.
Wooed by Trump’s demagoguery, or just disgusted by this election, too many Americans fail to appreciate the value of the constitutional provisions that distinguish this country from Russia and Pakistan. They never stop to imagine what life would be like without such protections.
Immigrants like Khizr Khan, on the other hand, value constitutional protections. They have seen what happens when they are absent. They know how much worse life can be when there is no rule of law.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.