Democracy and the rule of law
by Alona C. Mercado
“This is how democracy dies…with thunderous applause.” In the fictional world of Star Wars, these prophetic words were spoken by Queen Amidala as Chancellor Palpatine (a.k.a. The Emperor) was granted sweeping emergency powers on his march towards total dictatorship.
Sound familiar? In today’s world, we have unfortunately seen many instances of these prophetic words coming to life. It could be argued that the chilling scene that took place in Washington D.C. on January 6, 2021 was unlike any other in world history. But was it really unique?
If you look back at world history, you will see many successful and unsuccessful attempts to overthrow a sitting government. That is called a coup d’état. There have been many such instances in Philippine history. There is also the 1928 Beer Hall Putsch in Germany led by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. Hitler was unsuccessful in his first attempt to overthrow the sitting German government and was tried and convicted of treason. Although he was sentenced to five years in prison, Hitler only served nine months and was then released. Thereafter, Hitler revised his strategy and took over the German government with the use of Nazi propaganda and legal elections.
On January 6, 2021, the sitting United States President, Donald Trump incited his followers to march on the Capitol and “take back the government” because he claimed that the election was stolen from him. If you look at the facts, Trump lost the popular vote by over 7 million votes, he lost the Electoral College by a large margin, and he lost almost every single court case his team brought forward to advance his claims. At its very core, Trump led his followers in a violent and unsuccessful insurrection and coup d’état against his own government in a vain effort to hold on to power after losing a fair and legitimate election. Those are not the actions of a democratic president; those are the actions of a wannabe dictator.
As the attempted coup played out in real time on televisions and computer screens around the world, I sat dumbfounded in my office watching this play out. The United States of America has always prided itself as the world’s oldest and strongest democracy. Yet, if that were true, how could something like this happen?
At the core of any democracy is the rule of law. It is based upon the basic principles that citizens voluntarily bind themselves together in a collective entity (such as a country) and agree to be governed by a set of principles – the rule of law. When citizens break the law, they know that they will be held accountable. If society moves away from enforcing these basic tenets, then the fabric of democracy begins to rip and in its place springs up autocratic, fascist, or even communist principles.
In the aftermath of the insurrections, Congress immediately certified the 2020 elections and proceeded to impeach Trump a historic second time. The Republican led Senate, however, chose to call a recess and did not reconvene until the day before the inauguration of the new president. Now, Republican senators are using the argument that Trump should not be convicted because he is no longer the sitting president. The basis of their argument is laughable given that it was their actions that brought about the delayed Senate trial. And to be clear, the United States constitution allows for the impeachment and removal of any elected federal official even after they have left office.
The rule of law is not a policy that is changed with each new government or administration. It is the bedrock upon which all democratic societies around the world are built. It is built upon the premise that no one is above the law, especially not the elected leader of that country. It is not something that is disregarded at the whim of the current occupant of the presidency.
For me, I firmly believe that the Senate must fulfill its constitutional duty to hold a fair and impartial trial following Trump’s second impeachment. The fact that he is no longer in office makes no difference. It is the principles that must be upheld. The Senate, as an institution, must make a very loud and clear statement that anyone who attempts to circumvent the constitution must be held accountable, regardless of whether they are still in office. It will then be up to every single elected senator to reach deep within their souls and determine, based on the facts presented at trial, if they will vote to convict.
In a democratic society, the rule of law provides its citizens with the knowledge that they have entered into a mutual covenant with their fellow citizens. The rule of law provides its citizens with the knowledge and promise that if they break any law, they will be held accountable. For any society to ignore these principles puts that covenant into question. When democratic norms are broken, democracy suffers. When democracy suffers, citizens ultimately suffer.
Trump’s insurrection brought physical damage to the heart of America’s government – a very visible symbol of the country’s political divide. It sought to capture, torture, and possibly assassinate the sitting Vice President, the Speaker of the House and countless Democratic lawmakers. It also sought to disrupt and prevent the certification of the election. Had these plans been successful, Trump could have declared martial law. Although those plans were thwarted, the insurrection did claim the lives of at least five people and brought severe injury to yet an undetermined number of police officers. But most of all, it laid bare, for all to see, the fragility of American democracy.
The upcoming Senate trial will reveal to the world, whether the 50 Republican senators will uphold their oaths to the Constitution of the United States or continue to be beholden to a disgraced president. A man who, by his words and actions, has clearly demonstrated that his sole priority has never been the wellbeing of the people he swore to serve and protect, but to his own self-serving and personal interests.
Time will tell if these elected officials place duty above personal interest, country over party. The cynic in me is not holding my breath. But the idealist is hoping that these politicians will become true public servants and allow justice to prevail – not just for the American people but also for all democracies. The world is watching.
The content of this article is not intended as legal advice and is for information purposes only. Should you require legal advice on a specific issue relating to the contents of this article, please seek the services of a legal professional.
Atty. Alona C. Mercado is a Partner at Mercado Trinh Law LLP. She was called to the Manitoba Bar in 1999. Her preferred areas of practice include wills and estates, real estate, business law and immigration law. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (204) 594-3436. Website: www.mercadotrinhlaw.com.