Throughout political history, transitions from one ruler or group of rulers to another or from one regime to another, have almost always been a brutal, if not murderous, business. Think of the biblical King David giving his son Solomon a list of people who had supported a rival prince and should not be allowed to “go down to the grave in peace.” Or consider the English usurper Richard III and the boys in the Tower, the legitimate heirs to the throne, whose fate is officially unknown, though few doubt that they were murdered. Or read Hilary Mantel’s brilliant novelistic account of the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s leading minister. When rival courtiers took his place in the king’s favor, there was no question of retirement to his country estate; he had to die. And remember, finally, that Charles I and Louis XVI were put on trial and executed. That is the common story, repeated again and again. Sometimes death was replaced by prison or exile; what was never possible was political survival after the loss of power.
Until the Glorious Revolution in England in 1688: in that year Catholic James II was overthrown and replaced by Protestant William of Orange. William brought an Army from the Netherlands; there were a few skirmishes, and James was sent “gently” into exile. What was most important, literally unprecedented, was that his supporters stayed in England and remained politically active. No blood was shed, no one was sent to the Tower. The next year, Parliament passed England’s first (incomplete) Act of Toleration.
After that, in eighteenth century England, political transitions were radically transformed. It was a historical moment, not sufficiently celebrated, perhaps because we don’t admire the oligarchic character of the English regime. But in this oligarchy, it was possible to lose an election, lose power, and go home. This was the beginning of liberal politics.
Going home alive and free isn’t the whole story; the defeated oligarch could sit at home and, with his political friends, plan a return to power. The whole structure of liberal politics is contained in this idea of a possible return: the right of opposition; the freedom to organize, assemble, and argue in public and in print; the idea of rotation in office: the temporal limits on the use of power. Gradually, the extension of the right to vote in England and in the United States replaced the oligarchs with democratic politicians; they too can lose an election and go home. No prime ministers or presidents have been sent to prison or exiled. Assassinations of political leaders are unknown in England, exceptional in America. American presidents mostly go back to their home town and build a library, a monument to their time in office. And their party organizes for the next election.
This is the way a liberal democracy works, and it is a good way. There is much else to talk about in regard to the actual functioning of democratic politics. But this practice—lose power and go home—is crucial. That’s why the shouts of “Lock her up!” in 2016 were so shocking and so dangerous. Listening, my first thought was “That’s not what we do.” Washington went home; Adams went home; Jefferson went home. Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, Reagan, the Bushes, Obama, they all went home, and all of their political opponents went home. Models, all of them, of democratic rectitude. But it is important to add that both sides, both parties, were satisfied with this domestic retreat. No one wanted to lock up losing candidates or retiring presidents.
All this in prelude to the arguments about putting Donald Trump on trial. We need to worry about those Americans who want, simply, to lock him up. No doubt, he deserves a trial on myriad charges, and I believe that few juries would hesitate to convict him. But the process would be without precedent in American history, and so Americans today have to think seriously not only about what ought to be done but also about how whatever we do will affect our politics in years to come.
On the one hand, we have the possibility of a dangerous spectacle: Trump’s political enemies win an election and then charge him, try him, and send him to prison. That would break with fundamental liberal practices. What kind of a precedent would the break set? What future post-Trump president would face a phalanx of enemies, eager to organize a trial?
On the other hand, the practice “lose an election and go home” depends on the loser acknowledging the loss. Trump’s refusal to admit that he lost in 2020 and his unrelenting campaign to overturn the election is itself unprecedented. The insurrection of January 6th is unprecedented. Trump’s incitement of the insurrection is unprecedented. So perhaps we now need an unprecedented judicial process that would uphold the integrity of our elections, the Constitution, and the basic idea of liberal democracy.
Writing my book on the adjective “liberal,” I opted for the first of these arguments. After the Select Committee hearings, I am inclined, nervously, to defend the second. Whatever readers of this blog believe, I hope that they think hard and long about how best to preserve the liberal democratic politics that Trump is trying to corrupt.
Michael Walzer is emeritus professor at the Institute for Advanced Study. One of America’s foremost political thinkers, he served as editor of the political journal Dissent for more than three decades. Walzer is the author of The Struggle for a Decent Politics: On “Liberal” as an Adjective. He lives in Princeton, NJ.