Power Corrupts and Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely

We learn from history that we do not learn from history

Power Corrupts and Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely

Russians who oppose the regime of Vladimir Putin seem to be falling out of windows, tumbling down stairs or dying for no discernable reason these days. For example, in 2022, defense official Marina Yankina was found dead after falling out of a window in St. Petersburg. The former head of the Moscow Aviation Institute, Anatoly Gerashchenko, died after falling down a flight of stairs. Ravil Maganov, who had chaired Russia’s national oil company, fell from his hospital window, coincidently on the very day CCTV cameras were turned off for repair. And in February, Mr. Putin’s long-time adversary, Alexei Navalny, died while taking a leisurely stroll on the grounds of the Gulag where he’d been imprisoned on trumped up charges. Navalny had survived a botched poisoning, where someone had smeared the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok into his underwear. Perhaps he fell out of a window during his stroll.

Since 2014, dozens of Russian journalists, oligarchs and opposition figures have died from a mysterious illness called “Sudden Russian Death Syndrome.” Others have died under far less mysterious circumstances. Pavel Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner group of mercenaries, who marched on Moscow last year only to change his mind, died when his aircraft crashed. In February 2024, Maksim Kuzminov, who defected from Russia to Ukraine (along with the Mi-8 helicopter he was flying) died in a hail of bullets in Spain. And we can’t forget former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned in London in 2006 as a result of Polonium-210 being added to his tea.

It’s obvious that these and other Russians were murdered on orders from Vladamir Putin. But isn’t that the very idea in a “mafia state” where there is no rule of law and no legal consequences for criminal acts committed by political leaders? A despotic leader with absolute power can use that power to imprison dissenters and rivals, throw them out of windows or poison them in order to intimidate citizens from opposing the regime.

In April, the US Supreme Court will hear arguments as to whether former US President Donald Trump is immune from criminal prosecution on charges that he plotted to overturn the 2020 US election and stage a coup. The DC Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Mr. Trump was not a King and could be held liable for criminal acts committed while he was President.

Although the Court’s ruling wasn’t surprising, one line of questioning by Judge Florence Pan was as prescient as it was terrifying. She asked Trump’s lawyers if a sitting President could order SEAL Team Six to assassinate a political rival and not be subject to criminal prosecution. They bobbed, weaved, hedged and waffled, but eventually answered that a President is immune from prosecution for all criminal acts committed while President, but could only face criminal prosecution if he (or she) was impeached and convicted in the House and Senate first.

So, to take Judge Pan’s questions (and Trump’s lawyer’s answers) to their logical conclusion, if he regains power, an emboldened and unrestrained President Trump could theoretically use all the levers of state power to extract revenge on his political enemies. At most, he could even order Seal Team Six to assassinate Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and anyone else he didn’t like, and, using his own lawyer’s twisted logic, not face criminal prosecution unless Congress convicted him. And how likely is that if Trump’s MAGA Machine controls Congress after the next US election?

I know it’s a stretch, and this is a bit of a reductio ad absurdum thought experiment, but knowing something about Mr. Trump’s character, his moral compass and his propensity for risk taking, if he were immune from criminal prosecution, and could get away with murder (metaphorically speaking), what are the chances that he would try? Zero or more than zero? Take all the time you want.

History has taught us time and time again that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. But history has also taught us that we do not learn from history.

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