Above the Law


“What do I care about the law? Ain’t I got the power?”

A popular quote from one of the “robber barons” of the 19th century, Cornelius Vanderbilt, illustrates how money and power shields a select few from the law.  It was true then and its’ true today, as illustrated in the recent election of Republican Greg Gianforte in Montana.  In spite of the fact that he assaulted a reporter from the Guardian, Ben Jacobs, the night before the election (held on May 25). Jacobs was asking Gianforte his views on the Republican health care legislation. Gianforte was cited for misdemeanor assault, according to the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office.  He is scheduled to appear in court sometime before June 7. But Montana won’t formally certify Gianforte's victory until at least June 15. Congress won’t be in session until June 6 so he will be sworn in sometime after that.

According to a story by Daniel S. Levine Gianforte’s is worth several million dollars, perhaps more than a billion, according to the National Journal. In 2011 he sold RightNow Technologies to Oracle in 2011 for $1.5 billion. Before he sold the business it was the largest employer in Bozeman, Montana. His income in 2016 was between $2.3 million and $15.7 million. He has assets between $65 million and $315 million, according to station KXLH.  He reportedly has ties to two Russian companies sanctioned by the U.S. government in the past. Daniel S. Levine reported that Gianforte “owns nearly $150,000 in shares of VanEck Vectors Russia ETF. He also has $92,400 invested in the iShares MSCF Russia ET fund. Both of these funds have “significant holdings” in companies like Gazprom and Rosneft, two companies that were hit with sanctions after Russia invaded the Crimea.”

Ben Jacobs has a lot of company with other reporters who have similar experiences while asking questions to Republican members of congress.  As reported by Michael Calderone:

·         Alaska Dispatch News reporter Nathaniel Herz told police earlier this month that Republican state Sen. David Wilson slapped him during an encounter over a recent story.

·         West Virginia reporter Dan Heyman was arrested on May 10 while trying to ask a question of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, who later praised police for their handling of the situation.

·         And last week, CQ Roll Call reporter John M. Donnelly said he was pinned against a wall by security guards after trying to ask a Federal Communications Commission member a question in Washington.

Trump has obviously set an example with his behavior towards the press. Calderone reported that Trump “escalated antagonism toward journalists by waging the most anti-press campaign in recent memory.” Trumps campaign “blacklisted news outlets, manhandled reporters and restricted movements at events, while the candidate routinely and recklessly blasted journalists on stage and on Twitter.” After becoming president, he constantly accused the press of “fake news” and labeled the media “enemies of the people.”

Calderone closes his article with this statement: “But press freedom organizations that advocate for journalists working under authoritarian regimes and war zones have long understood that the demonization of journalists, especially from the highest rung of the U.S. government, is a global threat.”


Note the use of the phrase “authoritarian regimes.”  When Trump was running for president I often commented to friends that his supporters don’t want a president, they want a kind of “Clint Eastwood” man. This is exactly what they got.


Authoritarian people generally think that laws are for people other than themselves. Many have commented about Trump being above the law (see here and here). Adam Smith noted in his book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, that: “In many governments the candidates for the highest stations are above the law; and, if they can attain the object of their ambition, they have no fear of being called to account for the means by which they acquired it. They often endeavor, therefore, not only by fraud and falsehood, the ordinary and vulgar arts of intrigue and cabal; but sometimes by the perpetration of the most enormous crimes, by murder and assassination, by rebellion and civil war, to supplant and destroy those who oppose or stand in the way of their greatness.”


That the rich rarely get punished for their illegal behavior has been generally acknowledged and supported by many studies (see this, this and this) and also the fact that it was rare when anyone responsible for the economic collapse of 2007-2008 was arrested and sent to jail or prison. Many studies have confirmed that the rich generally think of themselves as better than anyone else.  One study noted that: “There is this mental frame of mind when you feel like you are at the top. You think you are above the law, you think you can get away with stuff and you won’t have to deal with the consequences.”  


Recently the office of Senator Elizabeth Warren conducted a study of 20 criminal and civil cases involving corporations and found that “the federal government failed to require meaningful accountability from either large corporations or their executives involved in wrongdoing.”  The study found that “in only one case was a corporation taken to trial and an individual indicted or otherwise required to answer for their contributions to corporate wrongdoing—and that case involved multiple deaths.”


There is a legendary conversation between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemmingway where Fitzgerald said “The rich are different from you and me” and Hemmingway is quoted as responding: “Yes, they have more money." Actually the conversation never really occurred.  However, Fitzgerald did say this: "Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me….They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves. Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are."  


And they think they are “above the law.”