I may have let out a weird animalistic hoot of joy when the news broke that former President Donald Trump had been indicted on federal charges. There’s something about Trump’s essence that maddens all former children who long ago always did the assigned reading, only to see their lazy bully classmate bloviate their way into the Ivy League thanks to their rich dad. “At long last he’s paying the price for not following the rules,” we think.
And yet, there’s something discordant about hearing from the New York Times that this is “the first time a former U.S. president has faced federal charges.” The Washington Post made the same point, with a subheadline saying, “Political earthquake as GOP frontrunner is now first ex-president indicted by the DOJ.”
Your disquiet may grow if you truly consider that no U.S. president has ever been impeached, convicted, and removed from office. Richard Nixon was not even impeached; he resigned before the House could vote after the Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment. Bill Clinton was impeached, and Trump was impeached (twice), but both were acquitted in their Senate trials.
How can this be? Trump is extremely bad, and honestly, I’m still smiling today as I imagine him screaming, “UNFAIR!” at the squirrels on his New Jersey golf course. But it makes no sense to believe he’s the only president in American history who’s ever acted so maliciously that he deserves to face potential consequences.
To understand this, you might want to read “Murder on the Orient Express,” the 1934 mystery by Agatha Christie.
In the novel, detective Hercule Poirot boards the famous train in Istanbul. There are only 14 other passengers in first and second class. On the second night, the train is forced to stop in Croatia due to a huge snowdrift, and the next morning, a businessperson named Samuel Ratchett is discovered dead in his cabin, indicating that the killer must still be on board.
The evidence is peculiar. Ratchett has been stabbed 12 times, but some of the wounds appear to have been inflicted by someone who’s right-handed, and some appear to be from someone left-handed. Some came from someone extremely strong, some from someone weak. And a fusillade of other clues all point to different suspects on the train.
Poirot considers it all and then gathers all the possible suspects together, along with his friend who’s a top executive of the railroad line. He suggests two theories of the case:
1. The victim was murdered by someone who’s no longer on the train, who somehow got on board and then escaped unnoticed.
2. Ratchett was murdered by everyone. All the passengers had a motive to kill him, each one stabbed him, and no individual can rationally be held responsible separate from the others.
Poirot says he’ll let his friend decide which theory makes the most sense. After pondering it briefly, his friend says it must have been the unknown stranger and that’s what he’ll tell the police.
This is American politics — and politics generally — in miniature and why it’s nearly impossible for societies to punish the perpetrators of great crimes: Anything terrible on a large scale demands broad elite endorsement and participation. When it comes to major evils, most people at the top must be guilty for it to happen in the first place. And so everyone gets away with it.
Think about the Vietnam War. Lyndon Johnson and Nixon were most responsible for it, murdering perhaps two to four million people across Indochina. (We don’t have a more exact number because we’ve never cared enough to make a serious effort to find out.)
But achieving this body count, far greater than any serial killer could ever dream of, obviously required buy-in from far more people than just these two presidents. How could any legitimate justice process convict just Johnson and Nixon? The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution passed in the House of Representatives 416-0 and in the Senate 88-2. Congress affirmatively voted to fund the war for years.
Or take the war on terror, which appears to have caused 4.5 million deaths. The post-9/11 Authorization for Use of Military Force flew through Congress with only a lone House member voting against it. Even Bernie Sanders voted yes. 296 members of the House and 77 senators voted for war with Iraq. As in “Murder on the Orient Express,” there was a lot of stabbing by a lot of people.
This dynamic holds true to an extent even when a society is conquered. The Nuremberg trial process included prosecutions beyond the most famous Nazi officials. But of over 3,000 potential cases, most were dropped, and by the 1950s, those sentenced to prison had almost all been released — because the U.S. needed German elites to help us run Germany. The trials of Japanese war criminals were even less consequential for the same reasons, with Emperor Hirohito explicitly excluded from any responsibility.
However, it is occasionally possible for societies to address minor crimes that major figures commit by themselves or with a small circle of cronies. Probably Trump’s most significant crime was his support for the Saudi war on Yemen, which has led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. But Trump shares his guilt with a large chunk of the U.S. political system, so that’s fine. It’s the hush money for Stormy Daniels and mishandling of classified documents that have tripped him up.
I hate taking away from anyone’s enjoyment of Trump’s troubles, especially given the shameless delight that they’ve brought me. I understand the temptation to look at what’s happening and believe that the system works. The problem is that this is correct: The system is working — it’s just not anything resembling a system of justice.
Correction: June 9, 2023, 3:16 p.m. ET
A previous version of this article misstated the circumstances of Richard Nixon’s resignation.