Hours after Joe Biden was proclaimed US President-elect, an article was published in the British newspaper The Independent arguing that as an “act of mercy” he should issue a presidential pardon to “a corrupt former commander in chief” . : ie outgoing President Donald Trump. It is a benevolent feeling – admirable in many ways – but ultimately it would not be an act of mercy. It would not cure the United States, and it could do even more harm.
Let me say from the start: the idea of a compassionate, noble leader who triumphs in his victory and pardons his former opponent is not ignoble. On the contrary, if Trump personally insulted or hurt Biden, then Biden would certainly be well advised to forgive him. Finally, there is a long precedent for magnanimity in different political contexts, albeit with different results.
In South Africa, after the fall of the apartheid regime, there was a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Victims of human rights abuses were asked to give testimony of what had happened to them and the perpetrators could apply for amnesty. It was naturally outside of normal legal process.
In Tunisia, there was the Truth and Dignity Commission, which was set up after the fall of the Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali regime during the Arab Spring uprising. Again, this was specifically set up outside of normal legal processes to precisely address the crimes of the Ben Ali era – to turn the page. This has meant, as in South Africa, investigating human rights abuses and using judicial and non-judicial mechanisms to address them.
The whole point of these types of processes was to heal the population who had suffered great national trauma at a time when new political systems were being forged. This language could be used to describe the past four years in the United States, specifically the word “trauma”.
However, an analogy to these cases is wrong. In countries like South Africa and Tunisia it was a transition from decidedly non-democratic systems to democracy. In South Africa this meant the rule of the white minority over a predominantly black population and in Tunisia an autocratic dictatorship. In either case, they were not simply moving from one leader to another, but from an entire system to another.
The systems had been so lazy that they could only be overcome by extrajudicial means – armed struggle in South Africa’s case and mass protests in Tunisia that destabilized the regime to the point where Ben Ali was forced to flee the country. South Africans and Tunisians assessed that these were revolutionary acts against systems that left them no choice but to seek extranormal means, and therefore new systems would be built. As part of this flow, many things were actually possible and necessary in order to heal and establish a new norm.
But while people might want to toss words like “revolution” around to discuss the Joe Biden-Kamala Harris campaign victory over Donald Trump, that is not an accurate description – at least not in terms of the system. That would do Trump far too much honor.
Trump was elected just as democratically in 2016 as Barack Obama in 2012 or Biden in 2020. Despite all the mistakes of the American state – and there are many – there is no authoritarian one that can be compared to Tunisia under Ben Ali, nor to South Africa under apartheid. It wasn’t under Obama, it won’t be under Biden, and it wasn’t under Trump.
That is not to say that Trump did not act in an authoritarian manner. He has. I have studied authoritarian regimes in the Arab world for a decade, and when I compare Trump’s rhetoric to that of many authoritarian leaders during that period, there are amazing similarities. Trump was dangerous to American democracy, especially its most vulnerable members. But he was pinched by this system; he couldn’t just wave it away, even as president with all the powers that came with that office.
The system continued to work – even when Trump and his acolytes rejected it – and that’s why Biden and the Democratic Party were frankly able to emerge successfully. Their victory is not a revolution over the system; it represents the functioning system as it is. Maybe Trump wanted to be an authoritarian state, but the United States is not an authoritarian state. (Example: if it were, many Trump opponents would be in jail, and I couldn’t get this article published in a U.S. publication.)
But the consequence of this reality is very simple. There is simply no justification for apologizing for Trump for the numerous crimes he has been charged with following his – highly competitive – departure from office. In the midst of a massive national struggle against apartheid, authoritarianism or the like, there is no healing. As euphoric as so many may feel about the Biden victory, this is a standard event in American politics: one election took place and the other won.
On the contrary, a pardon is likely to be completely counterproductive. Its proponents will likely promote the idea that it would send a message of healing to the nation that is capitalized, but that is not the message it is sending at all. A pardon sends another message that is all too common in the U.S.: Responsibility for corruption can be avoided if you do it from above. It doesn’t cure anyone or anything; Rather, it promotes, expands, and deepens the corruption itself. The message it sends is not about healing – it insists that you can be rewarded and not held accountable for corruption. It will be the normalization of corruption, not the healing of wounds.
However, there is one way of embarking on healing that Donald Trump is involved in: he will stand on trial for crimes that he will be charged with when there is evidence. If he is found guilty upon completion of such a trial – and this is a major problem – the courts may, in their own discretion, decide to grant mercy according to normal legal standards. But that’s when Trump, like every other defendant, expresses remorse and remorse. If he does so, it will heal many of the social wounds for which he was responsible, and it would of course be a cause for mercy.
But that would require Trump to be repentant. And given his track record to date since losing the election, when he has apparently put more energy than any other American president into sowing doubt in the democratic process, it seems somewhat dubious to see Trump as remorseful about anything. Except, of course, that he lost.