Disturbing as it is to see politicians and pundits advising a Biden administration to vehemently reject progressive policy goals, there’s more. As Eoin Higgins notes in a piece for Business Insider (10/30/20), a concurrent strain of argument is that Trump himself should face no real public reckoning. Higgins cites a column by historian Jill Lepore in the Washington Post (10/16/20)—heralded as “eloquent” by the New York Times‘ Nicholas Kristof (Twitter, 10/18/20): “Let History, Not Partisans, Prosecute Trump.”
Lepore, a Harvard professor, says it would be inappropriate to have a reconciliation commission like other countries have had; Trump’s “wrongdoing” instead “should be investigated by journalists, chronicled by historians and, in some instances, tried in ordinary courts.” How those courts can adequately address such “wrongdoing” as allowing, through corruption and mismanagement, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people is unclear. Her moral point is, though: “Many Trump critics will find this suggestion maddeningly insufficient,” Lepore notes, but chides “the appetite for vengeance is a symptom of the same poison.”
The call to coddle Trump—like the same outlets’ insistence that it would be mean to send bankers whose fraud derailed the economy to jail—is evidence of the total divorce between real people’s lives and experiences, and the puppets and caricatures in media’s narrative. There is no accountability to the millions of people who lost their lives, their loved ones, their homes, their jobs. Then as now, protecting the status quo involves marginalizing calls for justice, by portraying them as an “emotional” desire for “vengeance,” better tempered by cooler heads.
“Higher capital requirements may not satisfy blood lust the way a CEO in chains would,” wrote the Washington Post (9/12/13) in 2013, “but they’re going to do a lot more.” At the New York Times (2/25/11), it was: “You’re entitled to wonder whether any of the highly paid executives who helped kindle the disaster will ever see jail time. The harder question, though, is whether anybody should.”
The call to let Trump go gently also evokes the call not to prosecute those who committed acts of torture for the US—purporting to be some sort of healing gesture about “looking forward, not back,” while in fact preserving the conditions that led to the horrors. Now as then, doing what we’re told is the dry-eyed, grown-up thing to do involves erasing the real harms done to real people. That’s not “politic,” or “pragmatic”—it’s perverse.