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No, Trump Shouldn't Be Prosecuted
Maybe a little forethought is in order.
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In today’s day and age, when people no longer care to persuade but instead look to impose their facts and worldview on others, it’s safe to say that the abdication of critical thinking has made the realm of politics akin to an intellectual holy war. Our obsession with instant gratification means we’re constantly living in our limbic brain, which processes emotions, rather than in our pre-frontal cortex, which deals with future planning and problem-solving and is important for personality development.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the discourse surrounding the Jan. 6th show trial. It pains me that so many people have expressed absolute certainty that Trump should be indicted for this or that reason, as it clearly indicates a lack of serious forethought about the potential consequences, immediate and long-term, of having any administration prosecute its predecessor and chief political rival. These folks should pump their brakes. There are always comparative lessons to be learned by looking back on other times and places in which similar dynamics to the present have been at work.
Writing in the third book of The Peloponnesian War some 2,400 years ago, the ancient Greek historian Thucydides warned that it’s dangerous for the rulers of a democracy to prosecute an opponent after defeating him in a political election. Specifically, taking revenge in a show trial intensifies polarization among the demos, increases sympathy for the prosecuted among his own supporters, and opens the door to not just bitterness but outright violence. Thucydides discusses the outbreak of civil war on Corcyra (modern Corfu) as an example, but the takeaway is rather simple: To politically defeat an opponent is punishment enough.
I’m not interested in breaking down whether or not there’s enough “evidence in the public record” to justify the prosecution of a former president. Frankly, as a detached observer I think the committee and the entire thing has been a joke, and I’ve long argued that Jan. 6th was, and still is, grossly overblown.1
The bottom line is that this show trial hasn’t had the impact the Jan. 6 committee was hoping for. If recent polls are any indication, Thucydides’s warning should’ve been heeded, because Trump’s popularity has actually increased during the hearings. As of right now, the Bad Orange Man w/Mean Tweets, arch nemesis of neurotic liberals and sworn foe of woke supremacists, handily defeats Biden in many matchup polls (see here and here, for example). In fact, at 42% approval, Trump is technically the most popular politician in the country right now.
It’s amazing that his most fervent detractors have failed to grasp that “attention is the helium that lifts Trump above the competition,” as Martin Gurri put it.
The question shouldn’t be whether or not Trump should be indicted, but what a Trump indictment would do to the country. Maybe, just maybe, some forethought is in order.
A public trial, presentation of evidence before a jury, a conviction, and punishment—you think there’d be no crisis of legitimacy? The idea is absurd. I imagine every single Trump supporter and anyone who’s honest with themselves knows that our public institutions have zero credibility after Russiagate (to say nothing of the pandemic), which was quite literally Clinton oppo research laundered through corporate media and the security state as propaganda to deceive the American public and undermine a sitting president—who it just so happens would be the individual on trial.
Moreover, as Damon Linker underscored in Eyes on the Right, we’d essentially be putting the rule of law on trial, as the line between law and politics runs from porous to nonexistent. Laws are made by politicians, and prosecutors are either elected or appointed. A prosecutor’s decision on whether or not to seek an indictment2 isn’t automatic, it’s a judgement call that’s unquestionably influenced by partisanship, and the prosecutor would be the Democrat-appointed Attorney General.
In a hypothetical trial, even the slightest hint of bias, double standards, hypocrisy, or partisan animus would undermine what little remaining faith the public might still have in America’s institutions, subjecting civic society to further comminution and eroding our capacity to self-govern. The courts are bulwarks of our Constitution and laws, and they depend on the public to respect their judgments and on officials to obey and enforce their decisions. Trump has a long history of attacking individual judges and questioning the constitutional authority of the judiciary; there’s no reason to think he’d hold back.
Bringing charges against a former president based on his conduct in office could unleash runaway cycles of vengeance in the form of tit-for-tat political prosecutions. A conviction, even if secured, would be deemed illegitimate by a substantial portion of the population. If acquitted, Trump would still enjoy the benefits conferred by “martyrdom,” and would doubtless be emboldened and empowered after surviving a Democratic vendetta.
People too often forget about the power of narrative, and this one would be hard to beat: The all-American folk hero, the outlaw who comes back to reclaim his title and “save America,” sticking it to the powers that be.
What Do I Think?
It is my humble opinion that Trump shouldn’t be tried, and that he shouldn’t run again in ‘24.
For every die-hard MAGA dude out there, there’s always been someone more ambivalent who might have his doubts but still finds it hard not to side with Trump because he has the nerve to defy deeply divisive pieties that’ve threatened long-cherished American ideals. Abandoned and without any party willing to champion their interests, these ambivalent dudes cling to candidates who, at the very least, are willing to represent their moral convictions.
I am one of the more ambivalent dudes. I’ve said before that I really couldn’t care less which party is in charge so long as it’s what’s best for the country, though what exactly that might look like is, admittedly, ambiguous. I’ve also mentioned that given the calamitous past six years, what’s needed to bring things into greater relief is the distance that only time can give. A few years from now, I think more people will be able to look back on Russiagate, the BLM riots, and the pandemic and understand that it wasn’t Trump that was wreaking havoc on the country but the Left and its cult of identity.
So much of left-wing politics is reflective of a contemptible desire for psychological satisfaction. They would rather have targets than converts; would rather fight against than for. Time and time again these fundamentalist imbeciles have demonstrated their intent to replace traditional liberal beliefs about tolerance, free inquiry, and even racial harmony with ideas so divisive and unattractive that they eschew debate altogether, moving straight to shaming, threats, and intimidation. Whatever’s the opposite of that, that’s what I want.
My hope is Trump might be amenable to someone like DeSantis stepping forward to reign in the excess, naïve of me though it may be. Let’s be honest: Biden would lose to someone handing out BOGO slurpee coupons at this point and Harris wouldn't triumph over a well-cooked hot pocket. Which is to say that there’s a very good chance whoever the Republican nominee is will be our next President.
Don't even get me started with the “coup” and “insurrection” talk. Beyond asinine.