Most of us have lived our entire lives without the FBI raiding our homes. It's not luck: it's just that we're not criminals.
When Richard Nixon chose to resign from the presidency in 1974, his successor, Gerald Ford, faced a difficult decision: prosecute or pardon. He chose the latter, citing the belief that the nation had been through enough–the Vietnam War, a decade of political assassinations, and Nixon's own Watergate scandal. I had never been an admirer of Richard Nixon, but I remember thinking at the time that maybe a long and drawn-out prosecution would serve little purpose, especially since Nixon's resignation was tantamount to a guilty plea.
Nixon's crime, we all thought, was a political shenanigan gone amok. We never deemed it a threat to our security. Later, it would become common knowledge that Nixon's sabotage of the Vietnam peace talks in 1968 was integral to his winning that year's election and that the scheme had cost tens of thousands of American soldiers' lives. He had been a threat to our security, after all.
Now, five decades later, we are faced with a much greater crisis—what to do with an ex-president who not only compromised our security but blatantly broke the law, fomented an armed rebellion, and continues to express openly his plans to undermine the American system of government by removing the power of the vote. It's not yet a question of prosecution or pardon. Before either of those choices matters, a broader choice looms: indict or ignore?
Many believe that no matter how corrupt or heinous Trump's behavior, an indictment would throw the nation into such turmoil that civil war would transmute from possibility to likelihood. Maybe. And certainly, the current divide between parties would be exacerbated by such an act. No one should discount the Republican threat to impeach the current president were the GOP to gain control of Congress. In short, indicting Donald Trump threatens mayhem on a larger scale than that caused by that thuggish group of misled malcontents storming the Capitol on January 6, 2021.
But the argument over what to do presupposes that it's up to us as a nation or to Joe Biden as it was with Gerald Ford in 1974. It isn't. The laws that Donald Trump may have broken—and we don't yet know the scope of his transgressions—already have punishments attached. Theft. Treason. Tax evasion. Obstruction of justice. These are not new terms for which our laws have no response. We have prosecuted suspected criminals before, and though their rank may not have risen to the level of the leader of the free world, the laws still obtain.
And if we, as a country, decide it's better to turn a blind eye to Trump's actions because we fear the results, then how do we prosecute crime in the future at any level? There is already a well-founded belief that the criminal justice system favors the wealthy. Winking at Trump's offenses would eradicate any faith still inherent in that system.
But still...an arrest, an indictment, a trial, a decision. None of this would be pretty. And the threats from all those propagandized far-right radicals is disconcerting. We saw them at their seditious worst on January 6, and we know they have no love of country but only blind adulation for Donald Trump. They will sit, beg, or roll over at his command. And he will command. We also know that, unlike in 1974, the Greek chorus at Fox News will encourage the violence and abet the insurgency. A provocateur like Tucker Carlson would not blink at playing a role in destroying his country, nor would other Quislings equally venal and perfidious.
In the end, however, there is no choice unless we accept that blackmail and extortion will become the ruling precepts of the country—that people with guns and money will decide what's right and what isn't. So far, at least, justice has not fallen that far out of favor. And despite the noise made by the Proud Boys and the ranting of all those vacuous Republican office-holders urging Americans to attack FBI agents, most Americans don't give a damn about Donald Trump. Most of us know he's a grifter and a swindler, that he lost the election, and that he planned and effected an insurrection which, like almost everything else in his life, turned out to be a failure.
We do, however, care about inflation, gas prices, job security, and the next pandemic. We care about our kids' education and teacher shortages, the Supreme Court's rejection of women's autonomy, the continuing inability of America to solve its racial issues, and the overwhelming proof and frightening speed of climate change. Donald Trump, for most Americans, is only the guy who won in 2016 and lost four years later. That does not mean he isn't a threat, and for that reason alone, the law must stand up to him and must, if necessary, treat him as it would any alleged criminal.
Our country doesn't run on some blind allegiance to the Constitution; it runs on a shared belief that, despite its failings and errors, we have in America something worth preserving. At a time like this, when the empty kettles are making the most noise, we should remember that eight million more voters chose Biden in November 2020. The result was a thrashing by all metrics except in the Electoral College, an antiquated curiosity that matters nothing to most citizens.
No majority, of course, is right until it does right, and calling miscreants to account for their crimes is one of those things we can and should do right, as we did in 1941 and again in 2001. Both times we chose to defend our democracy at great personal peril, both times out of an appreciation for that shared belief.
How many of us still share it may determine our form of government for decades to come. It's a worrisome question, but criminals do not get a pass simply because we fear the wrong answer.