Members Only | December 13, 2022 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Sorry to break it to you, but there’s no justice

What will liberals do if Trump walks?

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William James, the philosopher and psychologist, once said that all of us are “extreme conservatives.” He didn’t mean that we all want “limited government,” “pro-growth policies” or some such nonsense. He meant humans protect what they believe to be true against new information threatening to undermine those beliefs.

American intellectual history bears out that observation. Historian Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen wrote that that history “demonstrates time and time again that the human imagination is extraordinarily deft at making new ideas jibe with prior intellectual and moral commitments, and when the two cannot or simply will not be reconciled, it is almost always the prior worldview that wins out.”

Right now liberals are encountering information that “cannot or simply will not be reconciled” with their belief in equal justice, such as the high likelihood of Trump walking away scot-free. Rather than taking action, liberals may retreat into cozy dogma. They may shrink from action for the gauzy belief that equal justice already exists.

Liberals fancy themselves immune to status quo bias, as the above is sometimes called. We’re not, though. We’re as human as the next person. We will believe what we want to believe no matter now devastating to our worldview is the new information we encounter. 

We ought to remember this when debating Donald Trump and the high likelihood that he will never face criminal accountability.

I’m afraid we won’t.

Cozy dogma
If Trump were not a former president, he would have been “arrested” and “indicted” by now, said legal analyst Glenn Kirschner on his podcast Justice Matters. The investigation by the Justice Department into Trump’s handling of government secrets is an easy call, he said.

What they should have done was get a search warrant promptly, get all of the documents they could by searching Donald Trump’s properties. Arrest the perpetrator, Donald Trump. Continue to investigate. And then get supplemental search warrants and continue to try to collect up what Donald Trump has stolen.

He later said that “there’s no justice if there’s not equal justice.”

I don’t know Glenn Kirschner well. I don’t know if he has liberal proclivities or preoccupations. What he’s saying is what liberals would say, though. He’s also saying it the way liberals would.

If X doesn’t happen, Y isn’t true. It’s unthinkable that Y isn’t true. 

So X must happen. 

Ergo, if there is no equal justice – if Donald Trump gets away with crimes normal people would not get away with – there is no justice at all. That’s unthinkable. Trump must be arrested and indicted.

This might not be so bad if liberals were not the only people in America possessing the will and capacity to reform criminal justice. 

Only liberals see a problem. Only they will use democratic politics to solve it. If they don’t, the status quo will remain as is, which is to say, no one else is going to put the effort into stopping powerful elites from continuing to escape political and criminal accountability.


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If liberals insist that equal justice exists, that without it, there is no justice at all, and that a country without justice at all is unthinkable, that may be where things end – with the unthinkable. Liberals might not do what needs doing to manifest equal justice. Do liberals want equal justice or the idea of equal justice? Honestly, I’m not sure.

Right now liberals are encountering information that “cannot or simply will not be reconciled” with their belief in equal justice, such as the high likelihood of Trump walking away scot-free. Rather than taking action, liberals may retreat into cozy dogma. They may shrink from action for the gauzy belief that equal justice already exists.

As Ratner-Rosenhagen said, “it is almost always the prior worldview that wins out.” Liberals already believe equal justice exists. When faced with the possibility that it doesn’t, they’ll just insist it does.

This is what I fear.

Justice or the idea of it
Again, if anyone in America can change a system of criminal justice in which the powerful currently escape accountability, it’s liberals. Yet liberals are often so chained to “equal justice” that they will cling to that faith instead of addressing the actual absence of equal justice.

To fix that, first describe the problem accurately. 

Instead of saying, as Glenn Kirschner did, that “there’s no justice if there’s not equal justice,” liberal reformers should flip that around. 

Given that it’s highly unlikely that Donald Trump will be arrested and indicted, that means there’s no justice at all in the United States.

If X doesn’t happen, Y isn’t true. It’s unthinkable that Y isn’t true. Ergo, X must happen. But what happens when X doesn’t happen?

That’s where liberals should be. 


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Instead of holding political reality to the liberal standards – “there’s no justice if there’s not equal justice” – we liberals should climb down from our pedestals and take a hard look at what’s really going on. 

The law has never been applied equally. Never. We know this. 

So stop pretending it has been. Stop pretending America is failing to meet a standard it never lived up to. Stop pretending there exists such as a thing as equal justice, then be outraged when the system fails to honor that make-believe principle. None of that helping.

But again, honestly. I’m not sure. 

Do liberals want equal justice or merely the idea of equal justice? Will they choose democratic politics? That demands firm commitment.

Dogma, however, that demands nothing.


John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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