Minnesota Law

Spring 2021
Faculty Focus

Author in Question: Professor Richard Painter

Professor Richard Painter, S. Walter Richey Professor of Corporate Law

American Nero

In American Nero: The History of the Destruction of the Rule of Law, and Why Trump Is the Worst Offender, Professor Richard Painter and his co-author, writer Peter Golenbock, provide an in-depth exploration of the rule of law—the legal bedrock on which this country was founded. Professor Painter ran for the U.S. Senate in 2018, and was the chief White House ethics lawyer in the George W. Bush administration from 2005-07.

Why did you select “American Nero” as your title?

Ancient Rome transitioned from a republic to a dictatorship and then an empire as more and more power was concentrated in the hands of the executive (a consul and eventually an emperor), who could not be kept in check by the Roman senate. For Rome this was a gradual transformation taking place over 100 years, with Julius Caesar toward the beginning and Nero at the end. Nero had many of the characteristics we see in Trump and in other authoritarians—extreme narcissism and anger in the face of criticism. Populist appeal and vicious attacks on political opponents were also characteristic of Nero.

This book was written before the COVID-19 crisis, but must have caught President Trump’s attention in the wrong way—in March 2020 he retweeted a picture of himself fiddling like the Emperor Nero. Nero is said to have fiddled while Rome burned. Many say that is what Trump did in the United States during the spread of COVID-19.   

This book is not just about Donald Trump but also about how a republic can transition into a dictatorship. There are two examples of this happening to a major world power: ancient Rome and then Germany in the 1930s. In Germany, of course, the transition from the Weimar Republic to Nazi rule happened a lot more quickly. We discuss in the book some parallels between Weimar Germany and the United States in the early 21st century, although fortunately we have not reached the end of that road yet and hopefully never will.

How did you connect with your co-author, Peter Golenbock, and how did your collaboration work?

Peter is a bestselling author of books about politics and sports. His agent contacted me about this project. Peter is a brilliant writer and thinker and working with him has been a wonderful experience.

Would you classify this book as a history, political science work, or something different?

The first half of the book has a lot of American history—we don’t get to Trump until halfway through the book. We seek to explain why we were so vulnerable to Trumpism to begin with: our history of racial divide, economic inequality, jobs disappearing overseas, the role of money in politics, religious extremism and bigotry, the immigration debate. All create an opportunity for authoritarians and demagogues to take advantage of public anger.

What are a few key takeaways you’d like readers to get from this book?

Our central theme is that a representative democracy depends upon the rule of law, which in turn depends on accurate understanding of facts and law. The rule of law requires public acceptance of objective truth with respect to both facts and law. Widespread “alternative facts”—e.g., lies—often precede the rise of dictatorships, as they did in Nazi Germany. Distortion of law—including an extreme “unitary executive theory” under which a president has the power to do anything he wants—also is a hallmark of authoritarianism. This book is about our vulnerability to factual lies and legal lies and the importance of our returning to a search for truth.  

The Trump presidency is now over. What makes the book of continuing importance?

If we don’t focus on the historical, sociological, and economic reasons why Trump came to power, we could easily get another Trump. Next time our authoritarian leader may be less transparent in his narcissism, younger and more precise in his scheming, and better able to connect to some ordinary Americans. In other words, our next authoritarian ruler may be a lot more dangerous. 

Have the events that took place after this book went to press last spring reaffirmed your faith in rule of law in the United States or heightened the concerns you outline (or both)?

The lies about the election results and the Capitol riot of January 6 reinforce exactly what we say in the book: Donald Trump rose to power with lies and he went out the same way.

You also describe this book as a “call to action.” What do you think is the future of the rule of law in the United States, and what can people do at this point to ensure the rule of law remains strong going forward?

As citizens we must pay attention to objective truth in getting the facts straight and also understanding what the law really says. Then we must vote and do everything else we can to reform the law and work for a better more inclusive country.