In the 1980 film Airplane, the Lloyd Bridges character says to a concerned female passenger, "Your husband and the others are alive, but unconscious," at which point the Stephen Stucker character—never one to miss a joke—adds, "Just like Gerald Ford."
In 1980 Ford was four years out of the presidency and a minor political figure who had inherited a job he probably never wanted and then lost it to Jimmy Carter. But his 1974 decision to pardon Richard Nixon for the Watergate crimes of the early 1970s reverberates. At the time, Ford used as his justification the fact that America, in a sense, needed a rest. Another trial, he said, and more accusations would be too much for a population still reeling from the assassinations of the 60s, the horrors of the Vietnam War, the resignation of the sitting vice president, and the whole Watergate saga. If he had known disco was on the rise, he might have added that to the list. (Sorry, Abba, just going for the laugh. We still love you.)
I remember thinking that Nixon should have stood trial, but I had never cared much for the guy and might have been biased. Still, my opinion grew more out of ignorance than the simple fact that no one is above the law. And later, when we learned that Nixon had deliberately extended the war in Southeast Asia to improve his re-election chances in 1968, his pardon was even more galling. He spent much of his later life complaining that he had been railroaded and had done nothing wrong, but his acceptance of the pardon contradicted that fact.
Innocent people don't accept pardons. Or resign the presidency.
Ford's decision turns out to be more than a fact in a history book, for it may constitute the defense of Donald Trump as he faces the possibility of arrest. Already his people are using Nixon's pardon as a precedent. They are justified in at least one way: both Nixon and Trump used illegal and dishonest methods to affect the voting process.
But there the similarity ends, for Trump's attempt to undo the results of a vote already completed and to instigate a process whose only logical fulfillment involved the overthrow of the government puts him in a much different category. He is more than a poor loser; he is a verified insurrectionist. (I use the word verified advisedly, but if he is never allowed to prove his innocence, that term will remain with him.)
Suppose the Justice Department sits on the recommendations from the January 6 Committee and lets Trump walk. In that case, waiting in the political green room are people more intelligent than Trump who have competent lawyers. Trump's abject failure will serve not as a cautionary tale but as a primitive blueprint.
If, however, DOJ does act, will the country's polarization increase? Maybe. But it doesn't matter since many of Trump's followers have moved beyond their fascination with him and begun to see him for what he is: a sociopath whose interest in the world does not extend beyond his own noonday shadow. (I don't use the term sociopath lightly, but people who study aberrant behavior agree that the most telling attribute of all sociopaths is a lack of empathy. Next question?)
So put the man on trial. Don't forget, the world is full of tales of imprisoned wrongdoers who serve their time and leave transformed and contrite. I don't necessarily believe Donald Trump will ever be one of them, but he deserves the chance to try.