BERLIN – Among Democrats and many Republicans, there is a great temptation to dismiss US President Donald Trump’s administration as a bizarre aberration. Just as Republicans may try to blame the many transgressions of the past four years on Trump, hoping that their enabling role is quickly forgotten, Democrats might want to make a show of observing democratic norms, by graciously refraining from litigating the past. If so, should Joe Biden prevail when all votes in the November 3 election are counted, Trump and his administration are unlikely to be held accountable for their egregious record of corruption, cruelty, and violations of basic constitutional principles.
Quite apart from political calculations, many observers – from former Democratic presidential contender Andrew Yang to distinguished jurists and historians – have argued that only tin-pot dictatorships pursue their vanquished opponents. With all-too-obvious motives of his own, US Attorney General Bill Barr has also opined that “the political winners ritually prosecuting the political losers is not the stuff of a mature democracy.” Yet these generalizations are too hasty. Trump’s “lock her up” slogan, directed against Hillary Clinton in 2016, should not be answered with “lock him up”; but “forgive and forget” is not the only alternative.
Americans need to distinguish among three issues: crimes Trump may have committed before assuming office; corruption and cruelty committed by him and his cronies while in office; and behavior that has exposed structural weaknesses within the broader US political system. Each requires a somewhat different response.