What’s the point of punishing Trump?


Or Alex Jones? Or Deshaun Watson?

The Info-warrior. Friday, a Texas jury assessed $45.2 million in punitive damages against Alex Jones, on top of the $4.1 million it previously ordered him to pay in ordinary damages. The $49.3 million total would go to Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, whose 6-year-old son Jesse Lewis was killed in the Sandy Hook massacre. On his widely viewed program Info Wars, Jones repeatedly claimed that the massacre was a hoax designed to give the government an excuse to confiscate guns, that Heslin and Lewis were “crisis actors”, and that their son never existed.

Because a large number of Jones’ fans actually believe the dark fantasies he spins, Heslin and Lewis have not only seen their grief exploited for someone else’s gain, but they’ve been harassed and even in physical danger for the last nine years.

As the linked article makes clear, the total amount Jones ends up paying could go either up or down. He might appeal to get this judgement reduced, but he also faces additional cases brought by other victims of his malicious lies. Or he might wriggle out of accountability by abusing the bankruptcy laws.

Like a lot of people, I take satisfaction from the prospect of Jones paying millions of dollars. I don’t throw the word evil around lightly, but Alex Jones qualifies. He has amassed a huge fortune by slandering people who have already suffered something worse than most of us can imagine. This is purely predatory behavior, and there is no excuse for it.

The quarterback. Last Monday, another punishment was announced (pending appeal): NFL quarterback Deshaun Watson will be suspended for six games. Watson was the target of lawsuits by 24 female massage therapists. Despite playing for a team (the Houston Texans) that had its own massage therapists, Watson arranged private appointments with more than sixty women, 24 of whom claim he tried to pressure them into sexual acts.

Watson sat out all last season (with pay) while the Texans watched the progress of the cases against him and tried to decide what to do with him. (He had demanded a trade before the scandals broke, but his value was hard to determine until the criminal probes concluded.) Ultimately, Watson was not indicted and he has settled all but one of the suits. The Texans then traded him to the Cleveland Browns, who signed him to a five-year $230 million contract. The contract was structured to have a large signing bonus, but a small first-year salary. As a result, he’ll lose only $345K if he misses the six games.

Like a lot of people, I had the exact opposite reaction to this announcement: Really? That’s all? I don’t know what I thought justice would be, but this isn’t it. If the decision stands, Watson will be back on the field for the Browns’ game against Baltimore on October 23. He should barely notice the lack of $345K, and it will be as if nothing ever happened. Come February, his accusers might be watching him in the Super Bowl. [1]

The former president. Meanwhile, the mills of justice grind very slowly in the case of Donald Trump. The House January 6 Committee has put together a compelling case that he did the single worst thing any American president has ever done to the country: He lost an election and tried to stay in power anyway. The January 6 attack on the Capitol was the culmination of a much larger anti-democracy plot, which he set in motion and tried to benefit from.

If he had succeeded, the republic set up by the Founders would effectively have fallen. After ignoring the Constitution and overruling the voters in 2020, why would he ever give up power? And if he should happen to die or retire, why should any future president give up power?

Whether Trump will face any consequences for these actions is still up in the air. Mitch McConnell and his fellow Republican senators refused to hold Trump accountable in his second impeachment trial. A Georgia prosecutor is investigating the former president’s attempts to reverse that state’s 2020 election, and the Department of Justice finally appears to be going up the chain from the January 6 rioters to the plotters whose will they were carrying out.

Will any of that lead to indictments? Convictions? Jail time? It’s still not clear.

The point of punishment. I’m discussing these three men together — Jones, Watson, Trump — because their cases raise a common theme: What is punishment for? How much is enough? Thinking about Jones and Watson, I believe, can give us insight into what we should want for Trump.

As I said above, it’s satisfying to see bad men punished. That’s a very human response. Particularly when evil-doers appear to prosper, it’s easy to convince yourself that anything bad that might happen to them is justified and even good. [2]

At the same time, I believe that the propensity to glory in revenge (whether personal, vicarious, or rooted in some abstract sense of justice) is not humanity’s best feature. At some point we need to let the Past pass, so that we can move ahead unencumbered.

But when is that? When can we say “OK, enough”? [3]

Nixon. Before we think about that, I want to consider one more example: Richard Nixon. President Ford pardoned Nixon about a month after he resigned, and as a result Nixon was never held fully accountable for his crimes. He never went to prison. He never even had to stand trial, so no once-and-for-all judgement about his actions was ever recorded.

At the time (I turned 18 shortly after the pardon, so I got to vote against Ford in 1976), I thought Nixon got off too easily. OK, he had to leave power, but most of us never have much power. If being returned to the ranks of ordinary citizens counts as “punishment”, then presidents really are above the rest of us in a way that I think the Founders never intended.

But as I look back now, I’m willing to cut Ford a little more slack. Even without a trial or prison, Nixon became a cautionary tale in American politics. For decades afterwards, a stain of illegitimacy hovered over everything he did. No American politician wanted to hear his or her actions compared to Nixon’s. His name went unmentioned at Republican conventions. Post-Nixon presidents couldn’t justify their actions by citing Nixon as a precedent.

In retrospect, I think that was a good outcome.

What I want for Trump, Jones, and Watson. What I want for each of them is not some specific punishment. What I want is an outcome that makes them cautionary tales for anyone in a position to offend in similar ways.

I want current and future sports stars to consider their possible actions and think “I don’t want to become another Deshaun Watson.” I want current and future conspiracy-theory entertainers to think, “That might gain me some viewers, but it’s a little too much like Alex Jones.”

And most of all, I want a stain of illegitimacy to fall across everything Donald Trump ever did. I want the adjective “Trumpian” to become a pejorative label that every major American politician tries to deflect, just as no one wanted to be “Nixonian” for the rest of the 20th century. I want the advisors and assistants in all future administrations to consider what happened to Trump’s people and think about what they might be risking.

What kind of punishments would do that?

It’s tempting to see the Nixon example as proof that punishment isn’t necessary at all. But Nixon was a very different case: By the time he left office, his party had already turned against him. He was never again a force in American politics.

By contrast, Trump is actively trying to return to power, and remains a cult figure whose members regard him as a hero.

He won’t go quietly into the Past, so he has to be brought down. I don’t see how that happens without mug shots, a trial, and an orange jumpsuit. The evidence against him needs to be presented in a court where he is not in control, with the result (I hope) that a jury unanimously convicts him of crimes. He needs to go to jail.

His trial and sentencing will be traumatic for the country, but his own actions and lack of remorse make it necessary. There needs to be an outcome whose reality he can’t deny. His followers may continue to claim, against all evidence, that he won the 2020 election. But if he’s in jail they can’t claim that a jury acquitted him.

How much jail time? Revenge says “He tried to overthrow my country’s Constitution and sent his mob to attack my Capitol.” The rest of his life would not be long enough to satisfy my desire for Revenge.

But that’s not an urge I want to indulge. So: how long? Long enough for the country to move on, and for the Republican Party to find new leaders. A four-year political cycle needs to come and go without any expectation that he might participate.

So that’s what I want: four years.

[1] For comparison, Tom Brady served a four-game suspension at the conclusion of the Deflategate saga. The Patriots managed a 3-1 record while he was gone. After he returned, the team continued on to the Super Bowl, where Brady led a historic comeback against the Atlanta Falcons and was named MVP. That game is considered one of the highlights of his career.

[2] I believe this is where the myth of Hell comes from. For many people, the vision of bliss in Heaven would be incomplete without the knowledge that the people who abused them in life are suffering endless torment. My own beliefs about God or the afterlife are uncertain, and waver sometimes from day to day. But one thing I’m certain I don’t believe is that a loving God condemns anyone to eternal suffering.

[3] My detailed analysis is in a sermon I gave in 1999, “Forgiveness“. I stand by it.

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  • Dave Britt  On August 8, 2022 at 11:04 am

    Hey, just wanted to say how much I appreciate your insights each week. I just read your sermon on forgiveness, and thought it was excellent. Thanks.

  • Alan  On August 8, 2022 at 11:13 am

    “But if he’s in jail they can’t claim that a jury acquitted him.”

    I wish I was able to be that optimistic. There is no objective reality for his base anyone. “The jury acquitted him, but the Deep State concealed it (all of the news coverage was obviously fake) and illegally imprisoned him anyway!” “The trial was a sham. The jury was paid actors. See, I found a photograph of someone who kinda looks like one of the jury members entering a polling place where Biden won!”

  • Corey Fisher  On August 8, 2022 at 11:37 am

    I’m not fully convinced that 4 years is enough, given another historical example: Silvio Berlusconi. Admittedly, he didn’t serve out his full initial four-year sentence, but he kept leading his party for his entire 6-year public office ban and tried to run during the ban anyway.

    If there’s any way for Trump to run for office again, he will. I don’t think we can trust a single election cycle of prison to change that – not as long as he can still campaign.

  • Janet Amaral  On August 8, 2022 at 11:40 am

    Sorry Doug, but I want to see The Orange Menace do a lot more than 4 years. He was willing to have his VP murdered! I think he should spend at least 10 years with no media interviews, heavy fines and all presidential perks (Secret Service/health care) stopped. Sure, at his age and health he most likely won’t live that long, so stick him in a minimum security joint. Make him and his grifting family irrelevant.

  • David Malcolm  On August 8, 2022 at 11:41 am

    I very much appreciate your posts, but I feel the analysis in the post is missing an aspect (or, at least, I disagree with one of your conclusions).

    One of the purposes of jail time, beyond reform and a sense of justice, is to protect the general public from a criminal who poses a direct threat. I would like to maximize the chance of the US remaining a democracy, and to minimize the chance of me, my family, or my elected representatives being murdered by Trump followers.

    I think you’re right that Trump needs to be in jail for at least one election cycle, but there’s a difference between the time sentenced and the time served. At the risk of having Godwin’s law cited on me, Hitler was sentenced to five years in prison for his part in the Munich Putsch, but was released after only nine months in prison. I think it’s clear that the Weimar Republic was overly lenient on him.

    I fear that any sentence will get whittled down enough that Trump will still be a force in politics on his release, and he will then be even more keen to Get Even (which seems to be a central aspect of his personality).

    I’m trying to separate my emotional desire for revenge (he nearly ended US democracy, he threatened my family’s safety) with what may be a utilitarian view based on a desire to protect the things that are important to me; I believe him being in prison would make these things safer.

    Sorry if this comes across as overly critical/depressing; hope this is constructive.

    • weeklysift  On August 8, 2022 at 6:22 pm

      Don’t worry about being non-constructive; I think your comment is fine. I agree that I was not allowing for early release. I think he really needs to be gone for four years, and should get whatever sentence is necessary to guarantee that result.

  • Laura Andy  On August 8, 2022 at 12:10 pm

    Thank you for this thoughtful and clear analysis. I appreciate your thinking and sifting and often find myself looking at things a different way or having a more complete understanding. Your sermon on Forgiveness is still powerful and is speaking directly to me. Thank you.

  • susanmbrewer  On August 8, 2022 at 12:22 pm

    It’s important to me that Trump is explicitly forbidden to hold any US office again.

    Like other commenters, four years seems too brief to me. That’s partly the fear that he’d serve only a small portion of those 4 years, but also my concern that a four-year sentence doesn’t do his misdeeds justice. And I think it’s more important than we may realize that the history books report that he was charged, tried, convicted and imprisoned. While I am pretty much OK with Ford’s pardon of Nixon, that example cannot set a precedent for this very different situation.

    Nixon’s situation is very different; he respected the system enough that he resigned and he never again attempted to gain office.

  • Andrea Miller  On August 8, 2022 at 12:45 pm

    I heard former president Ford speak about why he pardoned Nixon. Yes, I voted against him too. Forgot Ford was also a lawyer. He felt the country could not endure the years of a Nixon trial. Plus, one is Offered a pardon. When one Accepts the pardon, it is an automatic admission of guilt. That is what Ford wanted, the admission of guilt.

    Trump on the other hand needs jail. He has spent his life flaunting the law. You or I would have been in jail long ago for doing less. A semblance of justice.

  • dgcarsten  On August 8, 2022 at 1:04 pm

    I agree that four years is not enough. We know he would spend it at a “country club” prison, not living with Gen Pop (unfortunately). I agree with Janet Amaral that he should have no media interviews, heavy fines and no Secret Service protection. This creature (I refuse to call him a man — or a human) tried to overthrow our democracy. He wanted to have his Vice President hung. He urged a gun-carrying mob to storm the Capitol. No, four years is not enough. I believe an attempt to overthrow a government is called treason. The punishment for treason is…from the back of the room?

  • stlounick  On August 8, 2022 at 1:22 pm

    I thought Nixon should have gone to jail; campaigned and voted against Ford because of the Nixon pardon; and then had to listen to later attempts to resurrect Nixon’s reputation. I think he should have been tried and been sentenced—at a minimum to community service/probation.

    I never thought I would have another slippery president in my lifetime. Trump is far worse than Nixon but at the same time seems much more slippery. Unless underlings squeal bringing justice to him seems more like slogging through quicksand. I want it to work but I’m not that certain as I was with Nixon. The Nixon tapes revealed just how much Nixon was involved in the cover up. I haven’t YET heard of comparable evidence against Trump. The closest was the phone call Vindman outed…but that never caught on as a serious matter with our public.

    Not so convinced we’ll bring Trump to justice.


  • dmichael  On August 8, 2022 at 4:13 pm

    I can’t agree with your comments about Nixon. Nixon resigned in order to avoid punishment for his violation of the US Constitution and criminal laws. It was the predicate for his rehabilitation efforts, which in part, succeeded. He knew that Ford would pardon him, believed that Ford would return to Nixon the Nixon tapes so he could rewrite his presidential history and bury his crimes and foul behavior. Ford was stopped only by enactment of The Presidential Records and Materials Act of 1974 which provided custody to the National Archives. Nixon litigated not only the constitutionality of this Act but also to stop publication of any of its contents. AFTER Nixon died, his estate continued to obstruct publication of the contents of those tapes. A short trip down memory lane from the Washington Post in 1997: “What Nixon failed to mention in his memoirs was his initial decision to destroy the tapes, before any outsider learned of them, and how that decision — which might have saved his presidency — was eroded by a desire to use them, selectively, for his own defense and for his autobiography.
    Forced to resign in disgrace in August 1974, Nixon spent the rest of his life trying to put the tapes behind him, litigating against fresh disclosures and winning status as an elder statesman with a series of memoirs, foreign policy pronouncements and carefully scripted appearances.
    But the more than 200 hours of newly transcribed tapes reflecting “abuses of governmental power” — as the National Archives has categorized these conversations — will serve as a counterweight to that carefully burnished image. Sixty hours of tapes had previously been released starting in the 1970s.”

  • philipfinn  On August 8, 2022 at 4:39 pm

    I think, due to the political implications of Trump’s actions (note the legitimizing of Hungary’s Orban at CPAC last week) we should consider peremptory norms like those after the end of WWII – criminalize some of the more extreme behavior on the basis that to allow a repeat of such behavior would prove disastrous for the US and the World.
    Remember, we didn’t even have a NAME for genocide until the 1950s. To assume that some people will be content to take the hint is, in my view, a poor reading of history.
    Assuming Trump will be tried much less convicted and his trial won’t be Democracy’s last hurrah is for me a stretch…

  • ADeweyan  On August 8, 2022 at 4:51 pm

    I don’t think there can be any doubt that Trump granted himself as broad a pardon as possible while in office — or would say that he had when challenged. Whatever he is accused of he will conveniently have given himself a pardon for that. There is a real question about whether a president can pardon themself — but that will ultimately be a question for the Supreme Court and we know how that would likely turn out.

    We will likely need to rely on the states for any actual convictions and punishment, and that, too will be manipulated by Trump to so delay things that he likely is dead before he would be sent to jail. His one true gift is manipulating systems to his advantage.

    We may have to satisfy ourselves with a long, exhaustive trial that exposes Trump’s actions directly and with a level of detail that the January 6th Committee could not.

  • Dale Moses  On August 8, 2022 at 4:54 pm

    “But as I look back now, I’m willing to cut Ford a little more slack. Even without a trial or prison, Nixon became a cautionary tale in American politics. For decades afterwards, a stain of illegitimacy hovered over everything he did. No American politician wanted to hear his or her actions compared to Nixon’s. His name went unmentioned at Republican conventions. Post-Nixon presidents couldn’t justify their actions by citing Nixon as a precedent.

    In retrospect, I think that was a good outcome.”

    No. No no no no no.

    This is the founding sin as it were that enabled Trump. Because we have been unwilling to punish political crimes done by Republicans Republicans have been more willing to do political crimes. And, subsequently every Republican president since then has done political crimes of increasing severity and scale and we have been unwilling to punish them. And now we’re at Trump, where there is no more severe political crime that they could have committed.

    The party did not learn the lesson of “don’t do political crimes” but “don’t apologize for doing political crimes”. Fox News was set up specifically so that there would always be a friendly media environment for the future Nixons.

    If we do not punish this harshly then Republicans will just try again. And then once they have power why would they ever give it up? What risk will they take when attempting to end the United States the next time if they just get to go back to private life on the Republican dole given failure? Why would their political allies balk at supporting them in that moment of crisis when supporting them in that moment of crisis carries no punishment on the other side.

    The only risk is that punishment creates a civil war. That’s it. And that is a risk we need to be willing to take. Structurally there is no punishment aside from death we could mete out that would be harsh enough. Imprisonment? Was it enough to stop Napoleon or Hitler? No. It was not. Now maybe Trump himself is too old to run again and maybe the rest of the Republican party cares too much about democracy to try. But that is not a risk i want to take.

    • Thomas Paine  On August 9, 2022 at 12:01 am

      This is the proper, accurate analysis. We’ve taught Republicans that there will be no meaningful consequences for anything they do, and now that shame, too, is not only off the table, but shameful behavior is celebrated, it’s only a matter of not much time before someone every bit as sociopathic, corrupt, and authoritarian comes along, but who also is smart enough not to be his own worst enemy the way the life failure that is Donald Trump is, and who succeeds in ending American representative democracy completely. Everyone knows Republicans have already taken quite a bite out of it in state after state, so it’s not like the task that remains is going to be that hard for the determined.

      What Trump did is attack the very foundation of our government, a foundation that, at least in theory, sets the United States apart from most other world governments. There would be no difference between Trump seizing power from within and China seizing it from without. What Commander-in-Chief Trump did was treason of the highest order, and it deserves the punishment accorded to such treason: death by firing squad, the sooner, the better.

  • George Washington, Jr.  On August 8, 2022 at 7:21 pm

    To be meaningful, forgiveness has to be a two-way street. You can’t forgive someone if they hold power over you. Think of it like taking out a loan from a bank. The bank has the power of the law and the loan contract you signed to force you to pay, but they can choose to forgive the loan, which means they also choose not to exercise that power. But if they don’t have that power, they can’t forgive anything. So before someone who has wronged you can be forgiven, they have to put you in a position of power over them. If they refuse to do that, you literally can’t forgive them, because there’s nothing to forgive. All you’re doing is giving up at that point.

    In Trump’s case, until he has completely abased himself, and until his followers abandon him, we can’t forgive him. We certainly can’t while he poses a continuing threat to regain the presidency and carry out even more depraved policies than he did the first time. It’s meaningless to discuss forgiving Trump as things stand now.

  • David Goldfarb  On August 8, 2022 at 9:01 pm

    I couldn’t agree more that we need to lock him up. The one thing I wonder is: where do we find 12 impartial people to sit on a jury?

  • ccyager  On August 13, 2022 at 6:31 pm

    I agree that Trump needs to be made an example of what happens if a President doesn’t abide by the Constitution and the rule of law. He has thumbed his nose at both, so I think both need to come down very, very hard on him. He believes he can get away with anything, and I believe the best punishment for Trump is to relieve him of his freedom to live as Trump. He needs to live as a number. In a cell. For a very long time to prevent him for running for office or exerting any influence on the GOP ever again. That would certainly set the appropriate example for trying to overthrow our government. There must be members of the GOP who would sigh in relief when Trump goes to jail and they can move on to other things. I think it’s imperative that America show Donald Trump that he can’t get away with anything.


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