In the autumn of 2008, a gaggle of American conservatives gathered for a conference at that most godless of progressive institutions, Yale University. The mood was sombre: four days beforehand, President Obama had swept to victory; the outgoing Republican President, George Bush, was shadowed by a Middle Eastern war gone disastrously wrong. The title of the conference, ‘The Next American Conservatism’, already felt like a bad joke.
Outside, protestors gathered. Iraq was a popular theme – I spotted a few ‘no blood for oil’ placards, recycled from Tony Blair’s latest flying visit to campus. Eventually, a pair of students invaded the main hall, cursing and spluttering a demand for both Bush and Blair to face war crimes trials. One of our delegates, a well-known conservative lawyer, confronted them in a blistering show down. ‘If there is one thing marks a democracy’, he insisted, ‘it is the peaceful transition of power. You might not like your opponents. You might not agree with them. But when you seize power, you don’t put their heads on spikes. In America, we don’t make criminal indictments at the demand of a mob.’ I looked up Bush’s great defender the other day. He’s just endorsed Donald Trump.
On Sunday night, Trump made a direct threat to imprison Hillary Clinton, should he win the Presidency. Amid an evening of dark moments, it was the darkest – an existential threat to American democracy. His supporters parry that Clinton’s management of her emails as Secretary of State deserves further investigation: perhaps that is true, although the US Department of Justice has already investigated and declined to indict. But Trump did not merely call for a new investigation. He did not gently raise questions. He snarled, with the certainty of a man who believes he can fix verdict and sentence, that under his leadership Clinton’s jail sentence was guaranteed.
As former Attorney General Eric Holder pointed out on Twitter, even Nixon’s Attorney General Elliot Richardson resigned rather than accept extra-legal instruction from the Presidency. One of the eventual articles of impeachment against Nixon was the charge that he had directed the FBI and the DoJ whom it should pursue, in direct contravention of the limits on the Executive.
So there’s something bitter about seeing American conservatives – especially those who saw their duty to defend Bush and Blair from legal harassment – line up behind a man who thinks American law is as pliable as the firing guidelines on The Apprentice. But there’s also something shallow about watching many of the left deplore this latest shift, in Britain and America. Jeremy Corbyn, in the aftermath of the Chilcot Report, suggested that his predecessor as leader of the Labour Party could face war crimes charges. What was that about heads on spikes?
Because the truth is, that my American friend was right, even if he seems to have forgotten it himself. Even when our politicians do face serious questions – and those over Iraq are serious indeed – it is the peaceful transition of power that ensures their commitment to the rules of democracy. In nations where losing power can mean death or imprisonment, it gets harder to prise dictators from their thrones (you don’t have to make the rhetorical leap to Africa – just look at Tudor England.)
Calls for political prosecutions are rarely made consistently. Only today, the Morning Star has launched a repulsive defence of Russia’s behaviour in Syria – an exercise in war crimes if ever there was one – describing the bombardment of civilians in Aleppo as ‘Russian aerial support to troops fighting to drive extremists out’. I’ve worked with a few Syrian refugees from Aleppo who could put them right. And if it seems trivial to complain about such a rag, compared to the behaviour of a candidate aspiring to lead a nation, remember, as Guido points out, that the Morning Star is the only paper Jeremy Corbyn has delivered daily to his office. No wonder the man who loves to hate Blair hemmed and hawed over Russia’s war crimes when the subject came up at a controversial SWP rally on Saturday night.
Britain and America used to be a place where leaders could make judgements in a split second without fear of litigation following them to their grave. But the left let that genie out of the bottle when it became socially impressive to have attempted a citizen’s arrest on a former PM. Guardian journalist George Monbiot even set up a cash reward, paying barman Twiggy Garcia £2,222 for harassing Blair at a restaurant. At the heart of such schemes lies not a dedication to the rule of law, but a bloodlust, an urge to see the once-powerful suffer. We didn’t all tune into Channel 4’s 2010 The Trial of Tony Blair, for a complex explanation of international law (there was none.) We tuned into see Robert Lindsay, haggard with grey makeup, stare woefully into a mirror before twitching painfully at a vision of a soldier’s coffin.
It is this bloodlust, this thirst to render the powerful powerless, that Donald Trump unleashed on Sunday night. Like the roar of anger that greets each Bush or Blair public appearance, it is rooted in the refusal to believe our political opponents can make their mistakes in good faith. That our leaders may be fools, not criminals. If either Britain or America is to commence healing, once Trump is vanquished and his friend Farage disappears off to a Mid-Western lecture circuit, both will sorely need this basic of generosity of political spirit. After all, it may be that President Clinton one day finds herself in a position to jail Donald Trump for fraud, or – hypothetically – tax evasion. But how deeply would she disgrace the Presidency should she do so.