There are more than a few commentators and observers who are afraid of what might happen to the United States if the F.B.I. continues its investigation into Donald Trump’s handling of classified documents. They are afraid of violence and civil unrest as the most dedicated Trump supporters take up arms in defense of their leader. They are afraid of political instability and civic dissolution, as the Republican Party turns against the rule of law in support of the former president. And they are afraid of what might happen if Trump wins the White House a second time and decides to use his power for revenge.
Rather than confront Trump, they want to leave him alone. As my colleague Michelle Goldberg notes in her latest column, this is foolish. What we already know, she writes, is that “the failure to bring Trump to justice” has been “disastrous.” Indeed, if Trump had been held to account for his corruption and financial wrongdoing as a private citizen in the 1980s and 1990s, we might never have had Trump as a problem in the first place.
In any case, I would like to make a point related to Michelle’s: While the consequences of action might be dire, the consequences of inaction might be even worse.
Last year, I wrote about a time in American history when state and federal authorities allowed powerful elites and their violent supporters to run roughshod over the rule of law. In former Confederate states like Louisiana and Mississippi, vigilantes attacked and harassed Black and white Republican voters while wealthy elites worked to undermine Reconstruction governments, inciting mobs, bankrolling paramilitary groups and even participating in violence themselves. In 1874 a White League went as far as to seize control of the Louisiana statehouse in New Orleans, as well as the City Hall and arsenal. They aimed to depose the sitting Republican governor and install his Democratic opponent from the election in 1872.
If not for the timely arrival of federal troops, it would have worked. Instead, the White League slinked away, its leaders free to organize another attack. And two years later, they did just that.
As I wrote then, to go slow — or worse, to take no action at all — in the face of lawlessness “will only create a sense of impunity,” and that impunity can lead to something much worse than “chaos and mayhem.” It can lead, as it did in the South for most of a century, to tyrann
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