As Machiavelli wisely said, “If you come for the king, you best not miss.”
On this special WhoWhatWhy podcast we talk with journalist Damon Linker about the many — so far fruitless — attempts to bring Donald Trump to account.
Linker has been a senior correspondent at The Week, a senior editor at Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and a contributing editor at The New Republic. He is currently the author of the Eyes on the Right substack.
In a recent New York Times op-ed entitled “There is no happy ending to our Trump problem,” Linker wrote that, while he shares the anger and outrage toward the former president, he believes Trump should not be indicted or prosecuted. The blowback Linker got was fierce, and he talks to us about both his reasoning and the heated response he provoked.
He discusses our emotional need for closure, the difference between legal and social accountability, and why we so badly want the larger society to pronounce a verdict on Trump. Linker reminds us that politics and the law don’t always work in sync, and that in our current populist environment, even the jailing of Trump would only make him a larger-than-life folk hero.
Linker argues that prosecution will unnecessarily add fuel to a fire that will eventually die out on its own.
Full Text Transcript:
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to this special WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. Think about how many times in the past six years there was a sense of “Got you surrounded, Donald Trump.” The Access Hollywood tape, Russia, tax evasion, Mueller, the New York attorney general, the Manhattan district attorney, two impeachments, the January 6th Committee, and the 24/7 drumbeat of MSNBC.
I would argue that each of these unsuccessful attempts to bring Trump low has only upped the anger of those who want to see that fall. That each has upped the ante of Trump Derangement Syndrome to the point that today we can in no way be objective about what’s next in holding Trump accountable.
Here we are once again wondering if he will take the rap for actions others might already have been prosecuted for. We’ve all become experts overnight on national security law, and the Trump acolytes preach violence and civil war if he’s indicted, much less convicted. In a country deeply divided, with anger running at meltdown levels, can any attorney general, no matter how much rectitude he or she may have, prosecute Trump in a way that represents the best, not the worst, of our judicial system?
So maybe it’s best not to prosecute at all, to leave it all in the hands of the political process; that to prosecute might very well set off a chain reaction that would engulf us all in a political cloud whose half-life may outlast all of us. That argument lies at the core of a recent New York Times op-ed by my guest, Damon Linker. Damon Linker is a senior correspondent at TheWeek.com and a consulting editor at the University of Pennsylvania Press. He’s taught creative writing at Penn and worked as a senior editor at Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He was a contributing editor at The New Republic and is the author of several books, essays, and reviews.
He currently writes and publishes the must-read Eyes on the Right Substack, where he has been continuing this conversation about what’s next for Donald Trump. It is my pleasure to welcome Damon Linker here to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. Damon, thanks so much for joining us.
Damon Linker: Thanks for having me. It’s great to be here.
Jeff: There is this, as you talk about it in a couple of your pieces, this ongoing fantasy of people just wanting to see Donald Trump in a perp walk. And that seems to drive so much of both the legal and political rhetoric around this.
Damon: Yes. And, to be honest, I understand where it comes from. I feel a lot of that kind of indignation about Trump in myself. And it also makes sense kind of in deeper political philosophical terms, why this would be. When you have a political contest and one side beats the other, all you can think to yourself is, “Our side got more votes than your side.” And so, as satisfying as that is, it doesn’t come with quite the same stamp of legitimacy as supposedly extra-political, legal institutions of our liberal society pronouncing a verdict.
The idea not just that Donald Trump would be defeated in an election, but that the political system and its laws would rise up in a kind of objection to his behavior, indict him, bring him to trial, and that a jury of our fellow Americans and Trump’s peers would hear the evidence fairly and then pronounce, “You, sir, are guilty. You must be punished for your deeds.” That is, that comes with, as I said a moment ago, a stamp of legitimacy that somehow America as a whole is saying, “You, Donald Trump, are beyond the pale. We have decided collectively that you are a bad guy.”
What I think is going on with a lot of this is a lot of people crave, not just the political defeat of Trump and what he stands for, but that kind of legitimized pronunciation by, “We, the people,” collectively, that you, Donald Trump, are bad. And the thread of the things that I’ve written on this theme, all have to do with the trouble of trying to get to that heightened state of legitimacy when our own political system is so terribly divided and so torn asunder by disagreements over who we even are.
So is the “We” that pronounces this — is it just Democrats and a handful of never-Trump Republicans? And is that “We, the people of the United States,” or is that really just an election by other means? So in other words, the same people who would vote against Trump end up on the prosecution side and those who would vote for Trump in the past — and then might even in the future end up thinking that he’s being railroaded, and the whole process is unfair, and therefore illegitimate — are on the other. And if that’s the case, all we’ve done is reproduce our divisions at the level of the rule of law, which I think is potentially pretty dangerous and pernicious.
Jeff: And also to the extent that each of these things that have happened, whether it was the impeachment, the Mueller investigation, some of these other investigations that have taken place — every time that there’s been a shot taken at the king, so to speak and missed — it has upped the ante and upped the anger in everybody.
Damon: Yes, exactly. At every stage, because of the impulse that I’ve been talking about, this desire to pronounce officially that the system as a whole rejects this man, rather than just Democrats rejecting this man. Every time this is attempted, what you end up with is a lot of hype, a lot of raised expectations and hopes among those who can’t stand Donald Trump, like myself. And people in a lot of journalistic outfits, sort of bending the rules of usual journalistic objectivity and skepticism to hype the latest rumor, the latest anonymous source who’s come forward and spoken to a journalist, so that you can get the clicks and the shares on Twitter and everyone’s expectations rise.
And then, more often than not, the truth doesn’t turn out to be the opposite, it doesn’t turn out to all be a lie — or, as Trump would put it, “Fake news” — but it does often turn out that, “Oh, well actually the story isn’t quite that one-sided, it isn’t quite that obvious that a law, an actual law, has been broken.” And so that then hands ammunition to Trump and his supporters to say, “See, this has all just been a kind of playing of politics with the law,” and it disappoints those who wanted to bring Trump down and feeds their desire for the next little nugget, little tidbit of news that they can fasten onto as the sure magic bullet that will finally take him down.
And as you noted in your opening, we’ve been going through this kind of roller-coaster with him from the very beginning. It’s been about six years now since he declared his candidacy and was running for president and it’s pretty demoralizing after all of this, it ends up breeding a cynicism where people tune out from the news because they think that straight news stories are actually politicized hype, and sometimes they are. Again, not usually 100% nonsense, as Trump would make it seem, but exaggerated, hyped up, and intensified for the sake of ratings and getting people whipped up about hope to take him down.
And when it doesn’t work, that sets up the possibility of further waves of hype, and high ratings, and lots of clicks on social media, because you’re disappointed from the last time so your hopes start to search for the next possibility.
Jeff: And then among his own people, there is this folk-hero mythology that you talk about, the outlaw that takes on the system and beats down the powerful.
Damon: Exactly. Populism is a style of politics that has very little substance to it — I mean you can have left-wing populists, right-wing populists, different emphasis on the part of populists. But the thing that they share that makes them populists, as opposed to some other style of politics, is this tendency toward portraying oneself as the champion of ordinary people, ordinary Americans against the entrenched power of the elites, the people who hold the strings, who pull the strings, who run the show. So the perfect image of a populist is some guy waving his fist looking upward at the powerful, with the people behind him cheering him on as their champion.
That’s how Trump won the election in 2016, treating Hillary Clinton as the exemplar of the powerful, the elite, the entrenched institutions of our system, and he, Trump, would be the outsider. Now, of course, parenthetically, I should note that this is usually nonsense, and in Trump’s case, it absolutely is nonsense. Because no one is as much entrenched in the elite leadership of America as Donald Trump, who pals around with presidents and candidates and politicians of both parties for decades and is very much implicated in all the corruption that one could imagine and that exists in American culture.
So he’s by no means an authentic champion of average people against elites, he’s a member of the elite who’s decided to enhance his stature even more by portraying himself as their enemy in the name of the people. And so when this happens, what you end up with is a dynamic where, if those elites try to take him down, they paradoxically can empower him even further, giving him more credibility as a champion of the average American against those entrenched interests and powers-that-be.
And my real fear, as I talk about in my New York Times op-ed and some of my other writings at the Substack, is that we are deluding ourselves if we assume that indicting, putting Trump on trial, and even convicting and putting him in jail would necessarily end his political career. He could become the latest, as you know, kind of folk-hero guy who tries to run for president from his jail cell, saying, “Look, here I am. I am so much on your side against them that they saw me as a threat and threw me in jail to protect themselves against us. I am your champion! You have to rally to my side so that we can overturn this corrupt system that threw me in this cell here.” That’s a real danger in my opinion.
Jeff: And because so much of that anger, as we forget sometimes, is not just about Trump — he’s the vessel for it in so many cases, but that anger has been there seething and continues to grow even without Trump. He’s just the most convenient way for a part of the population to express that anger.
Damon: Yes. I think it is a complicated kind of feedback loop situation here. I do think you’re exactly right. Certainly if we go back as far as, say, John McCain picking Sarah Palin for his running mate in 2008, and you saw, I think, a lot of people who watch politics closely were shocked by how much enthusiasm Palin generated. That, I think, was the first time that we had seen probably going all the way back to, I don’t know, the late 1960s and George Wallace’s campaign, which did surprisingly well in 1968, that we’ve seen a kind of populist folk-hero burst on the scene and tap into something.
I think we then saw this dynamic repeated in the Republican primaries of 2012 where a lot of the party’s voters didn’t want to pick Mitt Romney, the consensus party choice, and floated from one unorthodox extremist [to another], from Michele Bachmann to Herman Cain to then a little bit more mainstream, someone like Rick Santorum — who actually, if you go back and remind yourself, he won a lot of states. I think he won 12 states that year in the primaries, which is roughly equivalent to how well Bernie Sanders ended up doing a couple of cycles later. So you saw this bubbling up.
So it predated Trump, but Trump was the first person to burst on the scene and actually make all of those discontented voters on the right go, “Aha, that’s him. That’s who we’ve been waiting for!” And once they saw him, then everything ratcheted up to a new level, and now I think you’re exactly right. If Trump does end up being taken down — or if he drops dead of a stroke, which is possible because he’s overweight and he’s in his mid-70s and not that healthy — he’s not going to be around forever, eventually, he will be gone.
But what he inspired is likely going to remain there and those folks are going to be on the lookout for a replacement, a successor to what he did, and the real trick is going to be, who will that be? Is it Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, who certainly wants to be that kind of a replacement or successor to Trump? Is it going to be as others, as my colleague at The Bulwark, Jonathan Last, and Sarah Longwell have suggested? Could it be Kari Lake if she wins the race in Arizona for governor, because she seems to be maybe even a little bit more truly Trumpian in a full-spectrum way.
Jeff: We saw this going back to what you were talking about in terms of Sarah Palin in 2008; we also saw it bubbling up on both sides in both the Occupy movement and the Tea Party movement.
Damon: Absolutely, yes. The Occupy movement was the first surging of left-wing populist discontent that eventually found a vehicle in Bernie Sanders’ campaign, especially in 2016. It had petered out a little bit by 2020, so he didn’t do quite as formidably then, but yes, absolutely, there’s a line to be drawn between the Occupy protests and the Bernie Sanders campaign, and that discontent remains to some extent on the left and could be tapped into by the right kind of candidate.
And then on the right, absolutely. The Tea Party movement was kind of a missing dot in the dots I was connecting in my brief story there, so from Palin to the 2012 GOP primaries that I talked about, in between there, yes, you have the Tea Party movement that crops up very early-on in Barack Obama’s presidency in reaction to the bailouts of the auto industry and the banks, and in a general opposition to the Obama administration’s attempt to pass healthcare reform that became the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare.
So, for a long time, I think a lot of people thought this was primarily a libertarian impulse, like this is just a more radical form of Reaganism, an opposition to expanding the government, raising taxes, having the government take over the very large portion of the economy represented by healthcare. And there was some of that, but it was probably something far broader than that — something that, again, eventually gelled a little bit more during the 2012 primaries, but then very much so once Trump launched in June of 2015.
Jeff: One of the things that’s kind of the overlay to thinking about not prosecuting Trump is to make the argument that we have to rely on the political process to solve these issues, and yet faith in the political process and the honesty of the political process has evaporated as well in large part on both sides, but for different reasons. And that seems to be something that really plays against this notion of letting the political process decide.
Damon: That is certainly true, and it’s distressing. It’s one of the reasons why the headline for my New York Times piece was, “There’s No Happy Ending to our Trump Problem.” That’s because, no matter which direction we go, we face fraught civic possibilities, dangers to the system; and that, I think, is a true picture of where we stand. There really is sort of no best path forward. The most I can come up with is very much a second-best Plan B, which is— and that’s often true in politics, but in our moment, it’s I think, a little bit more high stakes, because these are big, serious, dangerous questions we’re playing with here.
But I do think that, given the shape of the electorate, we do have a path, perhaps a narrow path, that could lead to perhaps not a happy ending, but at least a less-than-catastrophic ending — which is, in effect, that Trump’s coup attempt on January 6th, 2021, already gave some pause to some independent voters who had cast ballots for Trump. His most devoted followers on the right are going to stick with him all the way down into the pits. They’re never going to give up on him and what he’s trying to do. They’ll believe pretty much anything he says, and so they probably aren’t able to be picked off and peeled away from him.
They’re never going to believe in the legitimacy of any outcome of an election in which he isn’t declared the winner, and that’s bad. But the number of people who are in that deep with Trump is probably no more than a quarter to a third of the country. But Trump wins about 47 percent of the vote in 2020, and that means that there are a lot of independent Republican-leaning people who probably dislike Trump, and yet they dislike Democrats more, and so they were willing, once again, to vote for Trump rather than to put a Democrat in the White House.
And so the trick is to try to continue to emphasize the things about Trump that have led some of those independents who voted for him in 2020 to have pause and be like, “You know what? I don’t really like the Democrats, but actually this is even worse. Trump is even more dangerous. And even though I would prefer someone other than a Democrat in the White House, Trump is too much of a risk. I can’t vote for him.”
So maybe next time, if he runs again, instead of winning 47 percent of the vote and coming within a few tens of thousands of votes in the Electoral College of actually winning, which is what happened in 2020; instead, maybe he wins 45 percent of the vote overall and maybe doesn’t really come close in the Electoral College at all. That would be what I would hope for if this is resolved in the political arena and he actually does run again in 2024 — that the Democrats play their cards right to try to, again, peel away some of the more pragmatic people who nonetheless sided with him the last time.
Jeff: Of course, as you point out in one of your pieces, it’s still hard to get one’s head around the idea that 11 million more people decided, after four years of Trump, that they were going to vote for him, that didn’t vote for him four years before.
Damon: Yes. The honest truth is I am as much guilty as any journalist of falling prey to the outlook of my own people, [laughs] my own highly educated news-obsessed American citizens who spend all day on Twitter, engaging in fights with other people who are highly engaged with politics and have advanced degrees and things. In 2016, I’m not proud to say, but I’m also willing to admit for the sake of honesty— in September of 2016, I wrote a column for The Week titled something like “Trump is About to Lose the Election by the Biggest Landslide in American History.”
That was the way it looked to me when the debates were just about to get going in the fall of 2016, that Trump seemed so transparently, egregiously unfit to be president that I could not imagine that any more than the narrowest portion of Republicans would end up voting for him over Hillary Clinton, who, on paper, had more practical experience for being president than you could possibly hope for in a candidate. Former secretary of state, a senator, first lady for eight years plus her legal career before that and activism. She was the perfect candidate and he was so irresponsible and off the wall that I couldn’t believe it.
And then similarly, I believed all the polls before the 2020 election that showed Biden up 6 to 10 points. And I thought it would be a landslide. In the end, he still did manage to beat Trump in the National Popular Vote by 7 million votes, which is significant, but the sad thing is the United States doesn’t elect our presidents by nationwide popular vote. We have this cockamamie Electoral College, which changing it is probably beyond our capacity, given our divisions and the fact that the Republicans at this point benefit from it so much, they’re never going to go along with scrapping it or reforming it.
And based on that state-by-state way of choosing electors, if you go through the closest states, if the three or four closest states had seen a grand total of about 50,000 votes going the other way to Trump, he would have won again in the Electoral College while losing the popular vote, this time by 7 million versus 2.9 million the last time. So as I was watching this unfold, I felt a little bit like I once again was hoodwinked and fell victim to my own biases by failing to realize 11 million people who didn’t vote for him the last time were like, “You know what? After watching this for four years, I’ve decided, yes, more of that, please.”
It’s beyond my capacity to comprehend a person actually thinking that way, but it apparently happened. And I think it does point to the reality that if— Trump is so narrow. He barely won in 2016. He barely lost in 2020. If someone like a DeSantis or a Kari Lake or whoever or someone who doesn’t quite have Trump’s negatives, who isn’t quite as insulting to quite as many Americans, gets in there, I think it’s entirely conceivable that a Republican candidate could actually win outright the national popular vote in addition to the Electoral College.
So in that respect, I think the Republican obsession, because of Trump, with voter fraud, is extraordinarily ill-advised for them. I think they should, instead, try to actually win rather than trying to bend and break the rules to somehow come out on top, despite their inability to win a majority.
Jeff: And talk a little bit about the pushback that you have gotten to your New York Times piece and really the loudness of it in so many respects.
Damon: Well, I certainly have learned by this point I’m a centrist. I lean left on a lot of things. I lean right on a few things. I can’t stand Trump, but I’m also not a progressive, I call myself a moderate liberal, not a progressive. And that is a hard place to be in a highly polarized moment, and that’s certainly what our moment is. So that means that anytime I make a loud argument in defense of not doing what the left wants and not doing what the right wants, I get a lot of angry response from either the right or the left, depending on the piece, because there’re not as many people in the more moderate center these days.
So in that respect, I wasn’t that surprised, but it is the case that Trump is especially polarizing. And it is the case, I think, that a lot of people on the center-left and left, but I think even more the center-left, simply find Trump too galling to accept. They cannot believe that he gets away with what he gets away with, that he’s able to seemingly break the law all the time and not be punished for it, that he’s not brought down. “This guy should be in jail,” these people think. And they believe it all the way to the bottom of their soul. They believe it in their bones.
And so for me to say that, prudentially speaking as a matter of a judgment call, it would not be wise to prosecute the guy, it would be better to keep fighting him in the political arena. That means I’m an appeaser. I’m like Neville Chamberlain, and Trump is Hitler, and if we don’t, just like with how… This story, I think it’s historically a little unpersuasive, but I won’t get into that right now. But the story is that Neville Chamberlain meets Hitler, declares “peace in our time,” basically cedes part of Eastern Europe or Central Europe to the Nazis. And that convinces Hitler that the West is weak and that he can get away with anything.
And the next thing he knows, he invades Poland and we’re off into World War II. That it would’ve been much better if England had said, “No, you can take nothing, and we’re going to go to war with you right now.” But of course, I don’t think that’s quite as simple as how it unfolded. I think yes, Britain needed more time to build up its armed forces, which were still, in a way, a bit decimated from World War I, and they hadn’t allocated the funds necessary to build it up and so forth. So, they needed, in a way, a stalling tactic. I think that’s at least as true about that situation.
But applying that to a little old me, I’m just a columnist writing 1,200 words for the New York Times making an argument and you think I’m the guy who capitulated to Hitler, and you think Trump is Hitler? And what does that mean if we extend the analogy that Trump is a foreign invading power, who’s going to invade us from the outside? No, he’s one of us. These people who voted for him are roughly half the country. It isn’t half the country who loves Trump, and are totally in the bag for him, but you put together, 47 percent of the country voted for him in 2020, that’s almost half the country. These are fellow citizens; he’s an American; this is an American problem.
So, my response to a lot of this angry yelling at me about this has been to simply recapitulate parts of the argument to constantly remind people that this is about us as a whole. Our country is terribly divided; we are, in a way in a cold civil war with ourselves. Our polity is being torn in two, and there are two paths forward from this: one that broadly leads to a kind of healing and one that leads the division to get worse and worse until things really get scary. And I don’t make the argument that not prosecuting him will heal the country, but I do think the inverse of that is the case: prosecuting him will make it worse.
And one important lesson of politics is, do no harm. Try not to act in such a way that you will make a problem worse.
Jeff: And there’s that old cliche, so you never wrestle with a pig because you both get dirty and the pig likes it.
Damon: Yes, exactly. And Trump is kind of piggish, so, yes, I agree with that.
Jeff: Damon Linker, I want to thank you so much for spending time with us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I want to remind people that your Sub stack is Eyes on the Right. Thank you so much for joining us.
Damon: Thank you so much for having me. Anytime.
Jeff: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.