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Trump, Smith and the Decline of Civility

The Smith incident shows that there is one law for the very wealthy, and another law for the rest of us.
[additional-authors]
March 30, 2022
Donald Trump (Pixabay); Will Smith (Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)

Imagine if you or I were in a restaurant, someone insulted our partner, and we responded by deliberately walking toward that person, slapped them in the face, sat down, and shouted obscenities.

What would happen? In all likelihood, we would be frog-marched out of the restaurant, told to never come back, and then charged with assault.

But that did not happen to Will Smith, who, as the world now knows, defended his wife’s honor by slapping Oscar host Chris Rock and then twice shouting, “keep my wife’s name out your f—ing mouth.”

What was the response? Astonishingly, Smith was treated, not as an out of control boor, but as a victim. Denzel Washington, Tyler Perry, and Bradley Cooper comforted Smith—not Rock—afterward. After he won his Oscar for his performance in “King Richard,” Smith had the audacity to say he acted out of “love.” That’s what abusers say too. At the after-party, Smith was greeted as a hero. He danced and rapped along to his hits, and everyone else tried to catch a shot of him on their phones.

Smith’s assault is more evidence of the coarsening of American civic life. There have been endless incidents of bad behavior from both the Left and the Right. Students censor themselves, parents censor teachers, book-burnings are on the rise, and it seems that there’s no accountability. Yale law students can shout down someone whose views they don’t like, and Donald Trump, it seems, can get away with just about anything. A judge recently decided that Trump “more than likely” committed federal crimes when he tried to obstruct the electoral college vote on January 6. Will he be indicted? Nobody is holding their breath.

Smith’s assault is more evidence of the coarsening of American civic life.

But the Smith incident also shows that there is one law for the very wealthy, and another law for the rest of us. Just as Trump manages to escape accountability because nobody in his inner circle is willing to testify against him, and, it seems, because prosecutors are just too scared. Even though Trump is recorded demanding the Georgia Secretary of State “find 11,780 votes” (an oddly precise number), he has yet to face any charges for inviting election fraud. It seems that if you are big enough, loud enough, and brazen enough, you can get away with whatever crimes you commit.

Which brings us back to Will Smith. There’s no doubt he committed a misdemeanor assault under California Penal Code §240To be found guilty, a person must:

  • Do something that would result in applying force to a person; AND,
  • Do the act willfully; AND,
  • Be aware of facts that should make you realize your act would result in applying force; AND,
  • Have the present ability to apply force; AND,
  • Possess no legal excuse.

Obviously, Smith’s actions fit the definition perfectly.  But will there be any legal consequences? Smith has apologized to Rock and the world: “My behavior at last night’s Academy Awards was unacceptable and inexcusable.” An apology is sufficient when you ghost someone or spill wine on their carpet, or get drunk and say inexcusable things.  Smith, however, committed a crime. That’s different.

Obviously, Smith’s actions fit the definition perfectly.  But will there be any legal consequences?

Nonetheless, the LAPD has said that until Chris Rock files a complaint, they will not investigate. This makes no sense, given that Smith’s actions were witnessed by millions. Sean “Diddy” Combs has said the two have made up: “It’s all love. They’re brothers.”

So now we know that it’s okay to strike someone who insults us or our partner. But only if you are a celebrity.

It seems F. Scott Fitzgerald was right. The rich are very different than the rest of us.

They can openly commit crimes and get away with it. The rest of us can’t.

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