The problem of what to do with Donald Trump once he’s left office is already a matter of heated debate. Do nothing, or prosecute him? Let him go, or hang him up? The stakes are extraordinarily high and we need to get it right.
Fortunately, we have an excellent historical case that can give us guidance. It comes from the English Civil War of the 1600s.
Charles I was the Donald Trump of his age. That is to say, he was entitled, arrogant, vapid, a bully, a liar, and much less wealthy than he pretended to be. This latter fact is what got him into trouble.
To raise money to fund his lavish lifestyle, Charles shook down wealthy nobles, extracting forced loans. If they didn’t pay, he put them in jail. Parliament rapped his knuckles, saying that that amounted to taxation without representation. It was a violation of English law that went back to the Magna Carta, in 1215.
Charles escalated, making up false charges against his opponents, including the charge that one of them had killed a certain John Brown. Parliament replied, “Habeas Corpus.” Show us the body. Prove that an actual crime has been committed. Of course, there was no body, no crime. But two legal principles were affirmed: that evidence is necessary to prove a crime, and that the process of doing so—due process—is at the heart of the Western legal system.
Tensions grew. Charles tried to force a crypto-Catholic Anglican prayer book on the moderate Presbyterians and the fundamentalist Puritans. The relatively poor and powerless Puritans left the country to set up shop in a new world where they could practice their religion in the "pure" fashion they felt called to do.
The wealthier and more powerful Presbyterians were having none of it and went to war with Charles. It was the bloodiest mess the country had seen since the Norman invasion of 1066. Anglicans against Presbyterians. Nobles against Gentry. Monarchists against Parliamentarians. Town against country. It was what Thomas Hobbes, in Leviathan, called “a war of all against all.” In response, Hobbes devised the first-ever social contract, counseling the separation of church and state.
Charles lost the war. He was put under house arrest while his captor, Oliver Cromwell, negotiated with him about what kind of arrangement could be put in place that could work for both the king and Parliament. But Charles would have none of it.
He fancied that he ruled by “the divine right of kings.” He imagined that he was God’s emissary on earth, infallible, and due complete obedience from all subjects. Challenging him amounted not just to treason, but to heresy. And he would not betray his would-be covenant from God.
Charles escaped house arrest and resumed the Civil War. But his glory days were over. He was defeated again and recaptured. That’s when Cromwell made his fateful decision. The country would never be at peace so long as Charles was alive.
Cromwell had Charles tried in a sham trial where he was condemned to death. He was executed on January 30, 1649. It was the first time in over 1,000 years that a sitting monarch in the Western World had been executed by his own people.
A curious aside: Charles was a hunchback. Thus, the English nursery rhyme, “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. And all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again.”
This Civil War and the Glorious Revolution that followed is when the Western World moved from absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy, where king and Parliament were co-equal branches of government, and where a set of rules—a constitution—set out how each must behave. It was the beginning of the political transition from the autocratic world of the Middle Ages to the democratic modern world.
It was but one final step for the English colonists in America to go the rest of the way to creating a full-fledged republic, in 1776. Their remembered trauma about this war is what compelled them to embed the separation of powers, the separation of church and state, no taxation without representation, due process, and the rule of law into their new Constitution.
What can this episode tell us about what to do with Trump?
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First, let’s be clear, nobody is saying that Trump should be killed. But Cromwell’s insight was prescient. England could never have been at peace so long as Charles was around to create mischief and mayhem. The U.S. will never be at peace so long as Trump is free to create mischief and mayhem.
There is no public person in the history of the country so eminently deserving of the impartial application of the rule of law as Donald Trump.
Trump has already inflicted staggering, incalculable damage on the nation, not just in the public health calamity he inflicted on the country, nor simply in the shattered economy that resulted. Nor in the alienation from our allies or the desecration of our reputation in the eyes of the rest of the world. To be sure, those are profound inflictions, but, still, far from the worst.
The greatest damage Trump has done has been to divide the country against itself and to create doubt about the validity of our founding political institution: democracy. He has done his very best to destroy our capacity to discern truth from lies, demanding that an entire nation accept his unending torrent of psychotic lies as truth. He has elevated his personal self-interest over the public’s well-being, rage over reason, and power over principle.
These things—democracy, public well-being, truth, reason, and principle—are the core elements of a successful, coherent, civil society. By defiling them, Trump has made it all but impossible for us to live with each other. That has been his intent all along, to make the country ungovernable, without which it cannot possibly navigate the turbulent, tumultuous future it is facing.
So, what can we do?
Trump needs to prosecuted to the full extent of the law. This is not a matter of vengeance, but of demonstrating to the American people that our institutions are robust, are intact, and that we intend to honor them and live by them. The most important of those institutions is the rule of law, for without that, there is no other.
There is no public person in the history of the country so eminently deserving of the impartial application of the rule of law as Donald Trump. It might be for crimes he committed before he took office, perhaps tax evasion or money laundering or bank fraud or assaulting dozens of women or campaign finance violations.
It might be for crimes he’s committed while in office, perhaps the 10 instances in the Mueller report of obstruction of justice, violations of the emoluments clause of the constitution for accepting money from foreign entities, using the government to illicitly enrich himself and his family members, naked, repeated violations of the Hatch Act, or simple election interference.
Again, this has nothing to do with vengeance. It has everything to do with affirming the sanctity of the rule of law and the principle we so often espouse in words (but too often deny in practice) that no one is above the law, not even a former president. The Cromwell learning is important as well.
It will be impossible for the country to heal, to even be governed, while Trump is fomenting his trademark hatred, his fetid divisiveness, his lurid, unending conspiracy theories, and his messianic fantasies of victimization. His degenerate, destructive deviancy must be exposed and denounced for what it is. The fairest way to do that is through the impartial instruments of the law that have undergirded this nation since its founding. In fact, since before its founding. That is why they are there.
Yes, the irretrievably racist, the criminally credulous, the willfully ignorant, the perennially aggrieved, and the pathologically naïve that make up the core of Trump’s base will be enraged. But they will be enraged no matter what, and they are unpropitiable. Cowering before their threatened ire is to capitulate to the bully, the charlatan, the haters, those who can only destroy. It will sanctify might makes right and surrender our principles, our ideals, our self-respect, and our dignity. It WILL be the end of the country.
One of the surest failures that gave rise to Trump was the refusal of the Obama administration to bring to justice those bankers who had wrecked the economy in the runup to the Great Recession and profited so handsomely from its destruction. While more than 10 million working and middle class people lost their homes to foreclosure, Obama transferred $16 trillion to the same wealthy bankers who had caused the collapse. It was the truest testament possible to his neo-liberal loyalty to the wealthy at the expense of the people. People remembered that and they voted against the party that had done it. That is a good part of the reason we have Trump in office today.
Violations of the law—especially assaults on the government itself—must be held accountable. Trump’s depredations against the republic are far more insidious and consequential than were Obama’s because they go to heart of whether we are going to even have a republic. And they threaten to loom, menacingly, into the future, to ensure that no effort to heal the country can succeed.
Trump must be denounced and defrocked through the fair, transparent means that are given us to deal with such crimes, means that lie at the very heart of our collective existence. If we refuse to utilize them, then we decline to own them. That is the only way the country can be saved.