It’s laughable, really, that President Trump is presenting himself as the candidate of “law and order” in the 2020 presidential campaign. His record in office has been one of illegality and disorder.

Trump’s presidency has been a sustained attack on our traditional conception of the rule of law in America. He has sought increasingly to govern by executive mandate — on immigration, foreign policy, health care, and environmental and economic policy. He defies Congress and the courts almost on a weekly basis.

Trump’s contempt for the law was obvious in his granting of clemency last week to his campaign crony Roger Stone. The best summary came from Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who just eight years ago was the presidential nominee of a Republican Party that hadn’t surrendered its values: “Unprecedented, historic corruption: an American president commutes the sentence of a person convicted by a jury of lying to shield that very president.”

As President Trump threatens to unleash the military on American cities roiled in civil unrest, it's clear that he's embracing his inner Nixon. (The Washington Post)

And yet Trump postures as the tough guy who will protect the nation. Since the beginning of June, he has tweeted or retweeted the phrase “law and order” 33 times, often just the three words, in capital letters, with an exclamation point. Democrats sometimes make it easy for him by pushing slogans such as “Defund the Police” or “Abolish ICE” that Trump then uses to play on public fears.

Glenn Kessler, The Post’s Fact Checker, noted Tuesday that the Trump campaign has spent $6.7 million to run an ad in 12 battleground states that claims: “Joe Biden’s supporters are fighting to defund police departments. Violent crime has exploded. You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.” In awarding the ad four Pinocchios, Kessler noted that the former vice president had actually said in early June, “No, I don’t support defunding the police.”

Biden, the presumptive Democratic candidate, shouldn’t cede this ground. He should make the case that real law and order are impossible without social justice. Conservatives shouldn’t own this theme any more than they do the American flag. A lawful and orderly America is also one that advances racial and economic equality.

Trump’s populism involves a sleight of hand. He’s the billionaire who claims he’s standing up for the little guy, even as he advocates tax policies rewarding the rich. He claims to be the champion of the military and law enforcement, even as he undermines the independence of both.

Trump is about raw power — the kind that comes from ignoring the rule of law. That’s what he shares with strongman presidents such as China’s Xi Jinping, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. None of them let rules or past practices get in the way of exercising their political will. When Erdogan declares that the Hagia Sophia won’t be a museum anymore but a mosque, the rationale for this usurpation is simple: Because I can.

Watching Trump and his fellow rule-breakers at work, we’re reminded what a thin membrane the rule of law really is. Just on the other side is the domain of power and plunder, where every political action is a test of strength — where might makes right, as the aphorism goes. That has been Trump’s code in his business life, and now in his presidency.

America isn’t Colombia or Mexico. But if you’ve ever watched the Netflix drama “Narcos,” you can see how hard it is to restore the rule of law once it breaks down. When judges and politicians are intimidated into silence and ignore illegality, it requires very brave people to wrest back control.

I’ve worked abroad as a journalist in countries where the rule of plunder applied. In such places, where people are prey to warlords and fixers, and courts have collapsed, the law vanishes and extremists provide their own version of order.

Two snapshots. It’s June 2011 in Khost, Afghanistan, and Brig. Gen. Mark Martins is showing me a map of the Afghan districts that don’t have government judges or prosecutors; then he shows me a map of districts where the Taliban is strong. They’re the same map. Or it’s October 2003 in Fallujah, Iraq, and Sheik Khamis Hassnawi is explaining to me what will happen if American troops leave quickly and the extremists take over: “The strong will eat the weak and people will start killing each other in the streets,” he says.

Those ravaged, lawless states are not America. But the next time you hear Trump talk about law and order, remember that it’s a code for maintaining his personal power. Three words that Biden should embrace: law, order and justice.

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