Trump Embraces Lawlessness, but in the Name of a Higher Law

Donald Trump is often denounced in terms that suggest he poses an existential threat to the American political tradition. He is a fascist, a Russian agent, an aspiring caudillo: something foreign and menacing. To his critics, the four criminal indictments he faces are further evidence that he is a danger to democracy.

Mr. Trump and his associates may seem to welcome this characterization. He celebrates himself (inaccurately, as it happens) as a man who has been investigated “more than Billy the Kid, Jesse James and Al Capone combined.” He has praised James as “a great bank robber” and urged his fans to watch the 1932 film “Scarface,” based on Capone’s career. Donald Trump Jr. sells T-shirts that display his father’s mug shot with the words “Wanted — for president.”

For Mr. Trump’s detractors, such an open embrace of lawlessness confirms the danger he presents. But this understanding of his newfound criminal persona, a persona his legal opponents have helped to thrust upon him, overlooks something important: Mr. Trump may pose a threat to our political system as it now exists, but it is a threat animated by a democratic spirit. It is the threat of the outlaw hero, a figure of defiance with deep roots in American culture who exposes the injustices and hypocrisies of a corrupt system.

The outlaws in whose image Mr. Trump styles himself gained fame in the United States because they seemed to embody freedom and spontaneity, along with mistrust of authority and indifference to polite convention. They appealed to democratic impulses, however perversely. As the folklorist Stephen Knight has observed, the core values of the figure of the good outlaw are “liberty and equality.” These outlaws were lawless, yes, but in the name of a higher law. It is no coincidence that Mr. Trump recently described himself as the “public enemy of a rogue regime.”

The imagery is politically salient. Insofar as it resonates with his supporters, it may be an indication not that they are indifferent to our political tradition but rather that they are drawn to one of its core mythologies — and it suggests that attempts to use the legal system to defeat him politically will backfire.

From the beginning, Mr. Trump’s admirers have compared him to a paradigmatic outlaw hero, Robin Hood. In 2017, Sebastian Gorka, an official in the Trump administration, described Mr. Trump as “a Robin Hood taking over the empire” — an outsider who suddenly found himself on the inside, supported only by his “small band of merry men and women.” Representative Lauren Boebert, Republican of Colorado, has compared President Biden to Robin Hood’s antagonist Prince John.

Mr. Trump may not deserve the comparison — critics of his 2017 tax cut called it a reverse Robin Hood — but myth has a way of overstepping mere fact. Did Jesse James really pay off a widow’s mortgage, then rob the greedy banker who took the cash? Did Railroad Bill, the elusive Black bandit who stalked the rail lines of the South, actually feed the hungry with the money he made by robbing freight trains? For that matter, did Robin Hood really rob the rich and give to the poor? (The early ballads show him helping only members of his band.)

Whether these outlaws did the good deeds attributed to them hardly matters, because the appeal of the outlaw hero rests on a deeper truth: When the authorities are regarded as corrupt and malevolent, people will celebrate those who defy them. Like Joaquín Murrieta, the 19th-century Mexican laborer working in California who, according to legend, responded to injustice by vowing that he “would live henceforth for revenge,” Mr. Trump has promised to avenge the downtrodden. “I am your warrior. I am your justice,” he said in March 2023. “And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution.”

For those whose inclination is to trust and respect the American legal system, Mr. Trump’s mug shot, in which he defiantly glowers at the camera, may seem to lack humility. But for some others, the image may be a sign that he understands what it’s like to be on the wrong side of the law. The rapper Lil Pump has apparently had the image tattooed on his leg. The same is true of the rapper Bandman Kevo, who publicized his new body art with a recording likening himself to the candidate. (“Like Donald Trump, do what I want.”)

Lil Pump and Bandman Kevo have criminal records, a distinction they share with 70 million to 100 million other Americans — comparable to the roughly 100 million who have college degrees. It’s possible that a rap sheet is a political asset.

Mr. Trump’s embrace of an outlaw image marks a change on the American right. A political formation that once was committed to what Russell Kirk called the “defense of order” is now drawn to the most anarchic figures in our national mythology. The exchange of George Washington for Jesse James reflects the right’s growing alienation from America’s leading institutions. But the break may not be as total as it seems. Even as Robin Hood defies the local sheriff, he maintains his loyalty to the king. He may humiliate the bishop, but he prays to the Virgin Mary. A similar combination of rebellion and reverence characterizes Mr. Trump’s attempt to run as an outlaw who will restore law and order.

If Mr. Trump can manage to convince voters that he is an outlaw hero, then the usual criticisms of him won’t stick. His vices, however grave, will be seen as expressions of the democratic character, bound up with the political system his critics purport to defend. The threat he presents won’t be addressable by limiting foreign influence or vanquishing a single candidate. Indeed, given the nature of the outlaw hero’s appeal, we shouldn’t be surprised if efforts to counter him end up limiting things that are normally cherished as democratic values — not least, the freedom to challenge authority.

Matthew Schmitz (@matthewschmitz) is a founder and an editor of the online magazine Compact.

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