Symposium | Trump Vs. Democracy

Holding Accountability in Contempt

By Khizr Khan

Tagged DemocracyDonald TrumpMilitary

Our sons grew up surrounded by law books. As many young lawyers know, law school not only grants a diploma and debt but a small library as well. I still have them 40 years later.

I would often find Humayun, our middle son, pouring over these books with great interest. He would marvel at how the law worked, how people of any class, color, or creed could find means of treating each other equitably. He was particularly drawn to how the law relied on accountability as a cornerstone of a just and open society. He joined the military, in part, because he understood that the American system of laws required avid defense and safekeeping. In the military, Humayun learned that not only are there rules, but accountability as well. As much as you are accountable to the soldier next to you, you are also accountable to yourself.

In fact, it’s that personal accountability that holds the system together. As Humayun would say, I hold myself accountable in the defense of my country, and to my brothers and sisters in arms. It is precisely this personal accountability that turns a collection of individuals into an institution. Though directed at oneself, the language of accountability, ironically, provides the means of moving beyond oneself.

The same is true of the law. It’s too easy to forget that every right enshrined in the Constitution holds each of us to account, placing demands on the duties of citizenship; freedom of speech means you shouldn’t yell fire when there isn’t one, freedom of religion means we should ensure our politics do not endorse one creed over another, etc. In fact, some have argued that accountability is a structural feature of the Constitution, not unlike liberty, the separation of powers, or the need for checks and balances. Power without accountability is corrupting. And accountability, as Humayun said so eloquently, begins with every single one of us.

When Donald Trump took the oath of office of the President, he swore, “I, Donald John Trump, solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” So, when Donald Trump eschews accountability, he eschews the necessary bonds that hold us together as a nation under our Constitution, our laws, and our democratic institutions, that make me beholden to you and our greater polity to itself. By saying that neither he nor his cronies are accountable, he is in effect saying that he is not bound by our laws, that he is the exception. I can think of nothing more antithetical to being the President and commander-in-chief.

The absence of accountability is not what our son learned being a member of the armed forces. It is not what I learned when I read the Constitution.

What else could explain his five deferments from service in Vietnam, his failure to confront Putin on bounties placed on our service men and women, his commutation of the sentences of war criminals, his open requests for collusion with foreign powers, his vilification of whistleblowers, his accusations of a “deep state” conspiracy, his persecution of Lt.Col. Alexander Vindman, his consuming admiration for autocrats, and his apparent contempt for soldiers who lost their lives in battle? Every action he takes is in the service of self. For him there is no “us”; we are in his service, not he in ours.

But if you serve his self-interest, then you are an extension of him and are allowed all of his exceptions. With a wink and nod, you are allowed violence on the peaceable while anonymous men detain citizens without cause or due process. In the interest of scaring up votes for him, you are allowed to foment hatred and bigotry, making one American fear another, thereby breaking the bonds of trust necessary for a functioning republic. In the interest of showing his strength, you are allowed to exercise excessive and arbitrary force and even extra-judicial murder. The more you serve his purpose, the more exceptions from our laws and accountability you are provided. But to what end? He can win and maintain power only when he divides, foments violence, equivocates on hatred, and weakens the institutions that would otherwise hold him accountable. At some point, it breaks, and if history is any lesson, the unremitting evisceration of our polity can succeed.

Yet, it is we Americans who are willingly doing this to each other. There will come a time when, whether by history or our children, our truths will be laid bare and our actions or inactions held to account. Because the absence of accountability is not the norm, it is the exception.

The absence of accountability is not what our son learned being a member of the armed forces. The absence of accountability is not what I learned in law school or when I read the Constitution. On the contrary, the fundament of our society is accountability, and it cannot bear Donald Trump.

From the Symposium

Trump Vs. Democracy

No President in our history has presented such a threat to the Constitution and our democracy as this one. In this special issue, we asked 35 contributors to describe different aspects of the assault. We could have asked twice that number.


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Khizr Khan is an immigrant American, Gold Star parent, founder of the Constitutional Literacy and National Unity Project. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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