Crime and Punishment

Alan Zendell, September 5, 2022

Some people think Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 1866 novel delving into the psyche of a criminal isn’t relevant today, but I’m not one of them. When I read it sixty years ago, it had a profound effect on me, perhaps tapping into something in my DNA that remembers the angst of my Russian forebears. It stuck with me more than any other work of literature because of its insights into guilt and human nature.

Punishment has many forms, both external and psychological. Dostoyevsky believed knowledge of our own guilt can punish us far more than any court of law. His protagonist, Raskolnikov, plans his crime, feeling righteous and justified – the murder of a sleazy pawnbroker will benefit the world and the money he steals from her will be put to good use. But having committed the crime, his psyche judges him and finds him guilty. From the reader’s perspective, the punishment it exacts is worse than any court could impose.

This has come up frequently as people are fond of asking me if I think Donald Trump will ever be punished for his crimes (no one says alleged anymore.) I answer that to leave Trump unaccountable for the things he’s done is unthinkable. He has already weakened our standing among civilized nations. If we allow him to walk free and continue to raise hundreds of millions of dollars whining his grievances, our adversaries will rightly think of us as weak and in disarray, while our allies will realize the American dream was just a myth.

A majority of people agree with those general statements, but when we get down to the issue of punishment, it changes. Were Donald Trump to be tried before a jury, we’d face the most glaring weaknesses in our legal system. How would a court define a jury of Donald Trump’s peers? How could a judge be confident that regardless of what prospective jurors said, they were capable of objectively evaluating evidence and putting their emotions aside? Is anyone within reach of a television or the internet objective about Donald Trump?

I believe the Justice Department and the State of Georgia, have no choice but to indict him for a list of felonies worthy of an organized crime boss, only far more serious. He must either be tried and convicted or agree to a plea agreement that acknowledges his guilt for the entire world to see. But what then? People want to see him punished. The most common response I hear is that he should rot in prison, but I disagree. Much as my right brain would love that, my left brain says, “No.” The instant Trump’s guilt is clear to the world, President Biden must and will pardon him.

Lindsey Graham warned of blood in the streets if Trump is incarcerated, notwithstanding the “Lock her up” chants Trump led against Hillary Clinton at his rallies. Graham is stoking the radical Trump base, though he’s a smart enough lawyer to deny that’s his intention. The problem is, he’s right. No matter how desperately Trump needs punishment, our nation needs peace and stability more, which leads me to think about Dostoyevsky.

Were Trump to admit his guilt or be convicted in a federal court, the consequences to him would be devastating. He could never run for office again, and in most business circles, he and his family would be pariahs. Without political and public pressure to patronize his hotels and golf resorts, with banks unwilling to fund his ventures, and with all but his most rabid supporters having abandoned him, my guess is he’d suffer as much as he would in a country-club federal prison.

Raskolnivkov spends most of Crime and Punishment on a painful descent into Hell. His guilt destroys him, as it would most of us with normal values and consciences. Would that happen to Donald Trump? Has anyone ever heard him offer a whisper of remorse over anything he did? There’s been far too much testimony during the last fifty years over his amoral character, sociopathic values, and clinically diagnosable narcissistic disorder. Yet, we keep seeing and hearing reports that as law enforcement tightens the noose around his activities, despite his bluster, the pressure is getting to him.

At some level, Trump will suffer the same fate as Raskolnikov even if he never spends a day behind bars. He’s only human, and likely, when he finally breaks, it will be a total separation from reality. And if not? The only situation we have lived through that is remotely similar was Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon for crimes committed with respect to Watergate. The country was badly polarized then, though probably less so than today. Ford’s first priority was ending “our national nightmare.” He pardoned Nixon pre-emptively before the legal system could act, because any other course would have only widened the divisions in the country.

Ford’s decision may have cost him the 1976 election, but he was right. The fact that Trump’s crimes are more serious than Nixon’s doesn’t change that. Indictment, conviction, and humiliation will punish Trump as much as any prison cell, and I’ll help the process along by sending him my copy of Dostoyevsky’s brilliant work.

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