Can you envision President Joe Biden pardoning Donald Trump to heal and unite the nation? Should Biden do so if he were elected?
Of course, pardoning Trump wouldn’t save the former “president” from being prosecuted at the state level, unless President Biden were to coordinate with the district attorneys and call them off.
Moreover, even if Trump were prosecuted, the result would be as if he had been pardoned, because the American judicial system tends to make exceptions for the superrich. Just look at how Trump has been able to hold off the IRS by extending its audit of him for a decade, exploiting loopholes in the law to avoid penalties for his tax avoidance schemes.
Notice, too, how Trump has avoided a reckoning for the many misdeeds he’s committed throughout his life. Far from being punished for his inherent wrongness, he was awarded the presidency. These are signs of a broken judicial system and of a warped culture.
So in considering the question of a possible Biden pardon of Trump, we can lay aside the issue of justice. The question isn’t whether pardoning Trump would be wise as a way of dealing with Trump’s crimes and blatant un-Americanism; rather, the interesting issue is what the pardon’s symbolic value would be for the society as a whole.
Would a pardon be the most helpful presidential signal to send to Americans?
There are two ways the pardon would be interpreted by the American population. First, of course, the pardon would have Christian connotations. These aren’t worth considering in detail, because they’d be phony.
Superficially, the idea would be to follow Jesus’s advice of loving not just your immediate neighbours but your enemies. That ancient message was intended for spiritual rebels who oppose the arrogance of secular civilization as such. The point was to surrender to God’s austere standards to be worthy of the kingdom of heaven in the afterlife.
Once Christianity became popular enough that Jesus’s message was bastardized to suit the interests of the Roman church-state hybrid, when the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as its official religion for the sake of neutering subcultural threats to the Pax Romana, the “Christian” thing to do was to cherry-pick Church dogmas with Jesuitical speciousness to rationalize whatever had to be done to serve the Christian theocracy.
Needless to say, that theocracy — what Soren Kierkegaard called “Christendom” — comes across in Christian terms as a demonic, idolatrous usurper of God’s sovereignty. According to the Gospels, Jesus taught his followers to renounce secular, this-worldly standards, not to make a religion out of rationalizing them.
Mind you, later Christians had no choice but to make a deal with the devil of secularism, because the kingdom of God never arrived as prophesied, within the lifetime of the disciples. So that’s another reason to dismiss Jesus’s ethics, because they were based, at best, on an ecstatic vision that can’t be translated into practical policy.
In any case, Christian forgiveness comes across as grotesque in light of the New Testament’s extensive preaching on hellfire for nonbelievers and sinners.
Democratic Dupes of Neoliberal Plutocracy
That’s enough of that. Let’s consider a more relevant, viable interpretation of the potential pardon. What President Biden would actually say is that the pardon is needed to heal and unite the nation. The country has become hyperpartisan and has divided into warring tribes that live effectively in different worlds, with irreconcilable sets of “facts.” There’s already been a civil war, so a responsible president might think he should prevent another one.
However, that rhetoric would be as hollow as an explicitly Christian reference to the need for forgiveness. The actual message conveyed by such a political gesture would be threefold.
First, Biden would pardon Trump because Trumpism is bad for American business. Biden the neoliberal would be deferring to Wall Street in the same way that President Barack Obama did when he neglected to prosecute the parasites that inflated and profited from the real estate bubble of 2008.
Moreover, Biden would be deferring to the presidential convention of pardoning your errant predecessor to call of the dogs and protect yourself against prosecution in turn, once you leave office. President Biden’s hope would be that, by making peace with Trump’s supporters, Biden would be able to “get stuff done” as president by working with Republicans as opposed to antagonizing them by throwing Trump to the wolves.
In doing so, Biden wouldn’t have learned from his terms as VP under President Obama, since Obama, too, labored under the naivety of thinking he could work with the Republicans and get stuff done. Obama evidently hadn’t reckoned with recent American history, since he thought he was dealing with his grandfather’s Republicans. He got a rude awakening, which was that John Boehner stonewalled Obama’s legislative agenda, and Mitch McConnell blocked more than a hundred of Obama’s judicial appointments. President Trump got to fill those vacancies and McConnell laughed about it.
Needless to say, what’s become of the Republican Party would exploit Biden’s naivety just as the Republicans exploited Obama’s. But this wouldn’t enrage Biden because he’s a neoliberal rather than a progressive. Rather than wanting to reform it, Biden’s inclined to protect the broken political and economic system that’s produced the nascent American plutocracy, which uses the Republican Party as its crudest instrument.
Likewise, by angering the progressive base of the Democratic Party, the pardon of Trump would be comparable to Hillary Clinton’s error of taking the unions and blue-collar liberals for granted in the swing states in the 2016 campaign. That’s what got Trump elected in the first place, so the pardon could be expected to encourage the rise of another American demagogue.
But we have to look deeper in interpreting the symbolic implications of a Biden pardon of Trump.
Second, then, the pardon would indicate that the Democrats have succumbed to hyperfemininity. The pardon would be of apiece with Cancel Culture, critical race theory, and the totalitarian Me Too movement. As a white male, you’re now supposed to defer automatically to women and minorities, confessing your lowliness and culpability for all the world’s wrongs as well as your inability to do anything right.
For example, you’re expected to pretend that women are incapable of lying, so you should assent to their claims of victimhood, by ousting or “cancelling” the accused without due process. That’s toxic femininity, which is the counterpart of the Republican’s toxic masculinity (of rampant sociopathy and aggressive, self-destructive egoism or narcissism).
Republican values come down to predatory social Darwinism. Democratic ones amount to sentimentality. Biden’s pardon of Trump would be couched in treacle. It would ring hollow especially since Biden is no longer a capable orator. In reaching for lofty excuses, he’d fumble his lines and trip over his words.
And the pardon would be empty because conventional liberal morality was drawn from European Christianity which, as I said, has long since discredited itself due to the sordid history of Christian theocracy.
The point is that the pardon would be intended, at some level, to appeal to the feminine aspect of American culture, as a courting of the “better angels” of Americans’ character. That would be fine if the culture hadn’t already gone sour. Forgiveness can make sense and be productive in certain contexts. Or it could be a case of reckless collaboration with a psychotic, monstrous enemy that has to be defeated forthwith to save the country and perhaps the entire world (thanks to the threat of global warming, from consumerism).
The Infantilization of Consumers
Third, the pardon would come across as a nod to American infantilization. Americans are experts foremost in consumerism. Consumption of the world’s resources is an infantile, short-sighted endeavour. We consumers just want to play. We work to be able to afford products that entertain us and make our lives easier, and we don’t think about the have-nots or the long-term effects of this lifestyle. We’ve been infantilized by consumer culture, by what Friedrich Nietzsche called the “death of God,” by the torrent of corporate advertising, and by the Ponzi schemes that drive our pseudocapitalistic economies.
We want to play even if global consumerism is unsustainable, because we think in childlike ways. Critical thinking is the exception with us, not the rule. As functional children, we post-industrialists are not interested in reforming our systems, because we’re not capable of doing so.
Pardoning Trump would signal fear of certain fundamental truths and of the systemic causes of Trumpism. Biden would sweep these under the rug to get back to neoliberal normality, to the status quo of globalization and rigged capitalism that brought forth the Trumpian backlash. Pardoning Trump would mean that Americans have become so childish that they’re unable to deal heroically even with the supervillain that desecrated their sacred political spaces.
Pardoning Trump as Radical Truth-Telling
No, the only way a Democratic pardon of Trump would make sense is if the pardon were truly radical in addressing the causes of Trumpism.
Here’s roughly what President Biden would have to say in pardoning Trump, to avoid being seen, by informed, enlightened individuals, as committing an appalling blunder in doing so:
“I, President Biden, pardon Donald Trump, and I do so not to pretend to heal our nation with empty, sentimental words, but because I confess I was part of the problem that was supposed to have been solved by the obscenity of Trumpism. As a powerful neoliberal in government, I wasn’t alone in laying the groundwork for a demagogue like Trump to rise to power in the United States. You, my fellow Americans, were with me.
“We all did this to ourselves. Perhaps you’ve been voting over the last few decades for the ever more demonic Republican Party. Or maybe you’ve supported the centrist, triangulating Democrats or you’ve opted out of the system altogether and haven’t voted. Regardless, as long as you’ve somehow participated in American consumer society, in practice you’ve conceded the ugly values that have enabled sociopaths like Trump to perpetrate their parasitic schemes.
“Trump shouldn’t be scapegoated. He’s the American shadow, the monster we’ve brought to our doorstep, by being an out-of-control, superpowerful nation that’s become corrupted by its military supremacy and intoxicated by its plutocratic ambitions. Donald Trump is a loathsome, subhuman creature, a supervillain and a monster in the technical sense of being a malignant narcissist.
“Alas, the conventions of the tribal warfare we call our mass culture are little better. We’re horrified by Trump because he’s our reflection and we disgust ourselves. Our military, intelligence agencies, and large corporations are psychopathic too. We depend on the narrow-minded amorality of our institutions and rather than facing that fact, we’ve degenerated into infantile consumers. We’re afraid of the shocking truth of what we’ve become as a nation.
“What we’ve become is precisely the type of country that would be capable of electing Donald Trump as its president. We’re a disgrace as the world’s leader in driving the planet to the sixth mass extinction, as the world’s most shameless consumers of nonrenewable resources. We know better but we’re unable to reform our ways, because we’ve been infantilized and lied to by our politicians long before Trump began to demagogue in office.
“What I’m telling you now, my fellow Americans, is likely to be political suicide for me. I’m confessing to you that our nation as a whole is as grotesque and corrupt as was Donald Trump’s sorry excuse for a presidency. I’m telling you I’ve been partly to blame for the rise of Trumpism, as a senator for decades and as Barack Obama’s vice president. But I’m blameworthy, too, as an ordinary American, which means we’re all to blame.
“In pardoning Trump while recognizing his monstrousness, I’m taking a step towards radical reform not just of our political institutions, but of our collective character. I’m inviting you to look within and to ask yourself whether your loathing of Trump isn’t all-too convenient for you. Scapegoating is for childlike believers in magical thinking. What we need is to grow up, not to pretend we’re innocent of Trump’s inhumanity.
“Let’s not pretend also that by pardoning Trump I’m the one letting him off the hook for his treason, his corruption, and his poisoning of our discourse. Our corrupt judicial system is incapable of treating the superrich as equal to ordinary Americans. Trump has delayed his reckoning from the IRS and he’d tie up the prosecutors, too, because in this country money talks the loudest.
“The point of this pardon isn’t to enable Trump to evade justice. Our judicial system is already a tool Trump can use to that end, so even if he weren’t pardoned and were tried in court, Trump wouldn’t be convicted. The point, rather, is to inform you that our nation is evidently no longer able to act for the sake of justice.
“Our job isn’t to beat a dead horse and punish a psychopath that’s incapable of caring about the difference between right and wrong. No, we should be focused on excising the foul Trump within each of us.”
Can you see President Biden saying anything like that in defense of his pardon of Trump? Neither can I.
But I can see President Biden pardoning him, for the above three reasons.
Heroism and Monstrosity
Elsewhere, I’ve criticized Democrats for being insufficiently heroic in their opposition to the manifest supervillainy of Republicans. The Republican Party represents the superrich and little else. Their policies are so unpopular that they have to cheat to stay in contention for political power. But their policies also attract such shameless, toxically masculine individuals that that party is expert at cheating. Thus, they control the Senate and now the Supreme Court and they routinely get elected to the Execute Branch while losing the popular vote.
But the centrist, empowered Democrats aren’t interested in reforming that broken system or in forcing the Republicans to moderate their policies or be annihilated as a going concern at the national level, due to a breakout of real, representative democracy.
So if it happens, a Biden pardon of Trump should remind you of that scene in the movie “Braveheart,” in which King Longshanks realizes he has to negotiate with William Wallace and muses that if he sent his weakling son to do so, that would only encourage Wallace to take over the whole of England.
So what would a lack of pardon signify? Possibly, the kind of infantile scapegoating I referred to in my Biden speech, in the last section. If prosecution of Trump were done sanctimoniously, without radical truth-telling, the prosecution wouldn’t be particularly heroic.
But at some point evil has to be defeated to convince people that life is worth living and that existence isn’t a scam. Should we be content to dwell in a world that can produce a monster like Trump and enable him to get away scot-free for his litany of misdeeds? Can we feel proud of participating in our consumer cultures that thrive on empty spectacles and demagogic misdirection?
When faced with a supervillain, can we live with the shame of failing to rise to the occasion, to attempt at least to drive the stake into its heart?
Granted, Trump’s defeat at the ballot box would be humiliating for him and potentially an historic call to sanity and adulthood, depending on the clarity of the voters’ message. But Trump would claim the election was rigged and he’d rage from the sidelines, perhaps on his deranged television network, waiting for the chance to run again.
What we really want as people of good faith is comeuppance for Trump, not just his defeat but his confession. We want Trump to understand what he really is and the wrongness of what he’s done. Pardon or no pardon, that’s very unlikely to happen since Trump’s probably incapable of that kind of self-reflection. He had to have been shameless to have foisted his anti-presidency on the world in the first place.
In lieu of that poetic justice, a heroic nation would at the very least let it be known far and wide that its people see through Trump and repudiate that monstrosity. Perhaps depriving Trump of reelection would suffice, but seeing him in prison would come closer to the ideal scenario.
Trump’s Martyrdom in the Cult of Trumpism
Punishing Trump, however, risks martyring him, which is to say we mustn’t pretend he’s the only monster in the country. He’s the head of a cult of millions of trolls and white nationalist theocrats. Trump’s defeat in the 2020 election would mean their defeat too, but is it wise to antagonize such unscrupulous zealots? Is there a danger of triggering a civil war by persecuting this ex-president?
Trump’s followers believe the deep state sabotaged his presidency from the start because the bureaucrats were afraid of his mighty reforms. What, then, is the best response to the cult of Trumpism? Are these followers “deplorable,” as Hillary Clinton called them, only because the country’s public education has failed to teach critical thinking skills?
The real question here, though, is whether prudence in dealing with Trump’s benighted followers is more important than the symbolic handling of the supervillain that leads them.