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After the US election : America must now be de-Trumpified
Jan-Werner Müller is Professor of Political Science at Princeton University, Fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin (Institute of Advanced Study) and author of the forthcoming book Democracy Rules (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021). Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020. Translated from the English by Jan Doolan. www.project-syndicate.org
There is a great temptation among Democrats and many Republicans to view the administration of US President Donald Trump as a bizarre anomaly. Just as Republicans can try to blame Trump for the many missteps of the past four years - in the hope that the role that made them possible for him will be quickly forgotten - Democrats could strive to overtly overthrow democratic norms by graciously refraining from bringing any past litigation to justice.
In that case, if Joe Biden emerged victorious in the November 3rd election, Trump and his administration would likely not be held accountable for their outrageous corruption, cruelty and disregard for fundamental constitutional principles.
Political calculations aside, many observers - from former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang to renowned lawyers and historians - have argued that only shabby dictatorships will persecute their defeated opponents. US Attorney General Bill Barr has also stated, with all too obvious motives of his own, that “it is not part of a mature democracy that the political winners ritually prosecute the political losers”.
But these generalizations are hasty. One shouldn't use “Lock her up” in Trump's 2016 anti-Hillary Clinton slogan “Lock her up” with “Lock him up “(locks him a) answer. But “forgive and forget” is not the only alternative.
What about the atrocities on the Mexican border?
Americans have to distinguish between three sets of issues: crimes Trump may have committed before he took office, the corruption and atrocities of Trump and his cronies during Trump's tenure, and behaviors that have exposed structural weaknesses within the broader US political system. They each require a slightly different response.
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Historically, the transition from authoritarianism - or recovery from a decline in democracy - in many other countries has been marked by a willingness to let former rulers get away with impunity. According to the political scientist Erica Frantz, 59 percent of the deposed authoritarian leaders “lived their normal lives” afterwards.
Even so, new or restored democracies have often set up truth commissions and granted amnesty to perpetrators in exchange for truthful information and confessions in cases where they did not prosecute former public officials. This approach is best known from South Africa in the aftermath of apartheid.
Shameless nepotism and corruption
The peculiarity of the current situation in the USA is that Trump is already being investigated for possible crimes that have nothing to do with his presidency. Both the Manhattan Attorney's Office and the New York State Attorney General are investigating the Trump Organization for various frauds.
Although ostensibly apolitical, Trump's business practices anticipated and overshadowed the shameless nepotism and corruption of his presidency. He did not manage to completely transform the USA into a mafia state comparable to Hungary under Viktor Orbán, but this is largely irrelevant.
[More on the subject: He lies and they cheer - why many Americans hold on to the president, in spite of everything]
In addition, if the investigations against the Trump Organization were simply dropped when he left office, the accusation that they were purely politically motivated would appear justified, especially since the prosecutors in question are Democrats.
The danger: Trump's armed supporters
On the other hand, should the investigation lead to a prison sentence for its former president, Trump's armed supporters could decide to take the law into their own hands; at least the political division in the country would deepen.
You have to keep these risks in mind. Yet there is, in principle, no reason why a political leader cannot receive just punishment for crimes he has committed. This has happened to many, and some have even returned to political life afterwards.
Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi had to do charitable work after being convicted of tax evasion (because of his age he received a lighter sentence). Today he sits in the European Parliament.
The systematic cruelty of the Trump administration
Then there is the question of Trump's actual record in office. A lot of obnoxious policies can be found, but it would be wrong to abandon what President Thomas Jefferson called “the certainty with which to tolerate error of opinion, where reason is allowed, after his 1801 victory over arch rival John Adams to fight "has designated.
The same cannot be said of the corruption and systematic cruelty shown by the Trump administration in its response to the Covid-19 crisis and in separating children from their parents on the border. As Harvard University law professor Mark Tushnet has suggested, a commission of inquiry should be established to examine policies and actions that extend beyond incompetence and into the realm of politically motivated malice.
It is important that we properly document these events - perhaps by offering to show leniency in exchange for honest statements. The latter should help to think about structural reforms in order to make corruption and blatant human rights violations less likely, according to the principle of the quid pro quo.
Financial lack of transparency, Twitter abuse - Trump violated many norms
In conclusion, Trump broke a lot of informal presidential norms. This ranges from the relatively trivial - insults on Twitter - to the serious: that he has not made his tax returns accessible. As many US lawyers have argued, a wise response would be to set up a separate commission to examine the structural weaknesses of the presidency.
Such an investigation may find that many informal norms - from financial transparency to relations with the Department of Justice - need to be codified. There would be nothing vengeful about this approach. After Watergate, Congress passed a number of important ethical laws that both parties tended to accept.
This three-pronged approach need not distract us from more urgent government tasks. Maybe you have to spend some political capital on it. But if you don't do anything or go about the business of the day cheerfully, the costs could be even higher. That was probably after Gerald Ford's pardon for Richard Nixon (who never really admitted his guilt), and also in the case of the leniency that followed the Iran-Contra scandal and in relation to the government's “war on terror” George W. Bush was widely tortured.
Of course, a lot of Republicans could stand hands and feet against measures aimed at the truth. But others could use a public inquiry into the improvement of US institutions to distance themselves from Trump. After all, they have already proven nothing short of opportunistic.
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