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Crocodile Tears for the Convict
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Crocodile Tears for the Convict

Alvin Bragg’s case was wrong. That doesn’t mean Trump deserves sympathy.

Former President Donald Trump departs the courtroom after being found guilty on all 34 counts in his trial at the Manhattan Criminal Court on May 30, 2024, in New York City. (Photo by Justin Lane-Pool/Getty Images)

Dear Reader (good news, we found a sport at which Wisconsinites might excel)

Albert Jay Nock was one of the great magazine editors. As I have recounted before, in his Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, he tells a story

When he was running The Freeman (the first one), a young writer came to look for writing opportunities. The writer-on-the-make asked if Nock had any “sacred cows” that could not be violated in Nock’s pages. “Yes,” he recounted in his memoir, “we had three of them, as untouchable and sacred as the Ark of the Covenant.”

“The first one,” I said, “is that you must have a point. Second, you must make it out. The third one is that you must make it out in eighteen-carat, impeccable, idiomatic English.”

“But is that all?” the young man countered.

“Isn’t it enough for you?”

“Why, yes, I suppose so, but I mean, is that all the editorial policy you have?” the young man asked incredulously.

“As far as I know, it is,” I said, rising. “Now you run along home and write us a nice piece on the irremissibility of post-baptismal sin, and if you can put it over those three jumps, you will see it in print. Or if you would rather do something on a national policy of strangling all the girl-babies at birth, you might do that — glad to have it.”

Now, take it from the editor-in-chief, this is not exactly the editorial policy at The Dispatch. I mean, we do try to live by those three sacred cows, but I don’t think we’d stop there. What I mean is, barring some Swiftian tour-de-force, we would not run a piece defending the strangulation of girl-babies at birth. Or boy babies. Indeed, generally speaking, while Steve and I haven’t put it all down on paper, there’s just an implicit understanding here at The Dispatch that we don’t run pieces condoning strangling babies—or pretty much any other category of human. All I’m trying to say is that while we welcome divergent perspectives, we tend not to run stuff—no matter how well-written—that we don’t think is factually, morally, or intellectually defensible. This doesn’t mean we all have to agree with it, but we set the standards a bit higher than Nock suggests above (though I don’t think he would have actually published a piece advocating wholesale infanticide). 

Why do I bring this up? Because while I agree with our policy of not peddling hot takes for clicks or efforts to bend principles to fit partisan priorities, I have a soft spot in my heart for the Nockian approach. Sometimes the conventional wisdom is unwise, reigning pieties do not deserve to reign, and the things that aren’t supposed to be said deserve to be said. 

This is all a long-winded way of saying in the matter of the People of the State of New York v. Donald J. Trump, I want to make the case for blaming the victim. 

Blaming the victim is one of those things “everyone knows” we’re never supposed to do. Interestingly, this is not some ancient biblical or Thomistic injunction. The phrase “blaming the victim” is barely a half-century old. The phrase was almost nonexistent before the 1971 book Blaming the Victim by William Ryan. Angry at the Moynihan Report, Ryan argued that Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s diagnosis of family breakdown in the African American community as the driver of urban crime and dysfunction was outrageous. It was a seminal text of the “root causes” arguments we are so familiar with today. It took on added ideological baggage in the context of rape and sexual assault. And—let me just say—rightly so. Blaming women for being attacked because they dress provocatively or get drunk in unwise situations or locations is morally reprehensible. But, as the curmudgeonly father of a young woman, I feel compelled to say that this doesn’t mean that women shouldn’t be mindful of their circumstances. The matter of blame— morally and most emphatically legally—should and must reside squarely on the criminal. 

But let’s set intergenerational poverty and sexual predation aside. As a matter of real life, we all can think of circumstances where we, or people we know, went looking for trouble. I think most reasonable people can hold two independent ideas simultaneously. The person who hurls a string of F-bombs at a cop and gets a beating as a result was behaving stupidly. Indeed, it’s fair to say—not as a matter of law, but of common sense—that he was “asking for it.” But we can also believe that the police officer should not have beaten the victim. We have all sorts of moral intuitions of this sort. The teenager who thinks he’s good at parkour was an idiot for jumping from rooftop to rooftop, and it’s tragic that he fell to his death. But it is not as tragic as the teen who is struck by a stray bullet while doing her homework. The hiker who is mauled by a bear for trying to take a selfie with some cubs does not arouse the same sympathy as the visitor mauled by a bear at a zoo because the zookeeper left the enclosure unlocked.  

Donald Trump had sex with an adult film actress while his third wife was nursing their newborn child. He had an affair with a former Playboy model. He denies this, but as far as I can tell no one else does. Even Trump’s staunchest defenders don’t try—at least not very hard—to do so. He falsely recorded his effort to pay off to Stormy Daniels as legal expenses. He spent his entire professional life abusing the legal system, stiffing contractors out of their fees by threatening to bankrupt them in frivolous legal actions. As a landlord, he violated fair housing laws. As a presidential candidate, he promised to put his business interests in a blind trust, but once elected he didn’t and monetized the presidency for his own benefit. Also as a presidential candidate, he led chants of “Lock her up!” about his political opponent. He invited Russia to release information about her.  He was impeached (the first time) for abusing his power in an attempt to intimidate a foreign leader to investigate Joe Biden for corruption. When he tried to steal the 2020 election, he pressured his own Justice Department to allege crimes to buttress his false claims that the election was illegitimate. This was also around the time he encouraged a mob that visited riotous violence upon the Capitol in an effort to intimidate Congress out of fulfilling its constitutional duties. He’s promised to pardon people who beat up cops on his behalf. He calls them “hostages” and plays their warbling rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” before his rallies, like some weak-tea Americanized version of the “Horst-Wessel-Lied.” He defended the mob that chanted “Hang Mike Pence.” He’s argued—through lawyers in court—and in his own words that he should be immune to any criminal charges that stem from actions he took as president, and to a certain extent, as ex-president. He’s vowed that when he’s president again he reserves the right to do what he’s outraged is being done to him. I could go on, but you get the picture. 

Now, I want to be clear: Except for the misdemeanor of false records, none of these things are proven crimes and some of them are not crimes at all. Contrary to a lot of talking heads, politicians are not legally barred from trying to “influence an election.” That is what running for office is. Nor is paying off parties to adulterous engagements illegal. If it were, I have no doubt many politicians would be in the clink. 

But as a matter of common sense, karma, moral intuition, or whatever term you like, I am utterly incapable of mustering the slightest sympathy for Donald Trump. If I were to publish a dictionary of common phrases, I would put his picture next to the entry on “F—k Around and Find Out.” 

His entire life has been one extended experiment with testing, violating, and abusing the rules—some legal, some moral, some normative—for his own benefit. The system isn’t supposed to apply to him. This, in almost dialectic fashion, has invited responses that also violate the rules of the system. I’ve been making this point for nearly a decade now. Trump’s violations of norms have elicited countless violations of norms from his opponents. That’s what happens when you break the rules: You give permission to others to break them, too. 

The amazing thing is how people go blind to the rule-breaking of their own team. Sen. Mike Lee thinks that the prosecution of Donald Trump is an affront to all he holds dear, invoking A Man for All Seasons with the Democrats as Richard Rich, defenestrating the rule of law not for Wales, “But for Biden.” Trump’s myriad transgressions seem to be utterly invisible to him. 

But as I said, we can hold two ideas simultaneously. I think this case against Donald Trump should never have been brought. As a matter of law—not karma—Alvin Bragg is in the wrong. I don’t necessarily believe that he thinks he’s breaking the rules, but there’s a lot of that sort of motivated reasoning going on with rule-breakers these days. This case would not have been brought against anyone but Trump, as Elie Honig and others have argued. I am unconvinced by the argument he committed a felony. I don’t blame the jurors for reaching that conclusion. I might have reached the same given the instructions of the judge, the evidence presented by the prosecution, and the abysmal defense mounted by the Trump team. But I still think the verdict is wrong. 

This brings up another reason to blame Trump. He didn’t let his lawyers mount the sort of defense that might have gotten him acquitted. Refusing to give an inch, he wouldn’t let them concede the affairs, or pursue a strategy that didn’t align with what he thinks are his political and psychological interests. “Deny everything,” and “always punch back,” are the Roy Cohn rules Trump lives by, and why not? They’ve worked for him until now. 

And they may continue to work for him. One of the problems with the backlash that Trump invites from his enemies is that it often elicits yet another backlash against them. The flimsiness of this case is causing some people—and nearly all elected Republicans and most conservative pundits—to rally to Trump. It’s not at all far-fetched to imagine that Trump comes out of this stronger. Or he might not. No one really knows. But the fantasy that this will be the thing that rids us of Trump has taken many forms and has never paid off. 

I have no problem with reasonable criticism of this case and the verdict. Why would I? I agree with much of it. Where I part company is with the idea that this proves Donald Trump was “right” about the system. He’s like a human monkey wrench hurling himself into the gears of the system and then, when mangled by it, crying about how he’s a victim and that his victimhood proves the system never worked. 

It is abhorrent and reprehensible to call this case a Stalinesque show trial. If you know anything about Stalin’s Great Terror and say this, you are whitewashing profound evil and slandering the United States. In Stalin’s show trials, the accused were tortured. Their families were tortured. Victims were threatened with death—and the deaths of their families—if they didn’t sign and repeat false confessions. Rep. Nancy Mace plays a similar game. “There’s no difference: Putin silences Navalny, Biden’s DOJ targets Trump. The left’s outrage over Navalny is hypocritical as they cheer on Biden’s tyranny.”

If you know anything about Putin or Navalny and can say, with a straight face, “There’s no difference” the best one can say in your defense is that you are a staggering idiot. I don’t think Mace deserves such generosity. This is not like Castro’s Cuba, as Marco Rubio says either. 

It is entirely defensible to say that this verdict undermines faith and confidence in the judicial system. That is exactly what I thought it would do, and so I was a skeptic of bringing it all along. But you know what else undermines faith and confidence in the judicial system? Claiming that we are no different than Stalin’s or Putin’s Russia. 

Our legal system has never been perfect. It’s produced a fair number of miscarriages of justice. But normally, politicians—particularly ones who claim to be conservatives and admirers of the American experiment—do not respond to such mistakes by defecating from a great height on their country. But they are willing to do so, not for Wales, but for Trump. 

A note on Nock.

Some readers will recall I am a fan of much of Nock’s writing. My podcast is named The Remnant as a modest nod to his essay “Isaiah’s Job.”  

Nock’s self-description to himself as a “superfluous man” was a mild nod to the literary character type found in 19th-century Russian literature. But he meant something a little different. The Russian superfluous man, found in the novels of Pushkin, Lermontov, and others, was an aloof nobleman, sometimes of considerable influence and power, who defied the norms of polite society. Nock’s superfluousness was certainly aloof, but it was aimed more at those in power. The demagogues and politicians who manipulated public passion for their own ends exasperated him, but not to the point where he let their exasperation cause him to mimic their effects. He believed in a remnant of decent, somewhat stolid people who didn’t get seduced by the kulturkampfs of the moment. 

Nock is something of a cautionary tale, as he ended his life in anti-democratic crankery and in an antisemitism that betrayed his own previous denunciations of it. Obviously, I don’t subscribe to any of that. M.D. Aeschliman recently penned a fascinating corrective of Nock, William F. Buckley, and the concept of the remnant. I don’t necessarily agree with it entirely, but he’s a brilliant scholar and the piece is worth reading. I think whether you’re using Nock’s version or Matthew Arnold’s, the idea stands on its own. 

I bring this up in part to answer some questions posed by readers, but mostly to make a more relevant point. I think it’s fine to be angry about the Bragg case. I also think it’s fine to think justice was done, or that it will be done pending appeal. Reasonable people can disagree. But I think moments like this demand a little of that superfluousness. Watching cable news and perusing social media last night, I felt utterly out of step with the defining political passions of this moment. It was only when I watched the livestream of Advisory Opinions that I heard anyone acknowledge the conflicting truths of this case, the competing shades of gray that define the reality and the facts. 

You don’t owe anyone your passion. It’s fine to be loyal to a party or even a politician. But you shouldn’t relinquish the keys to your supply of anger or righteousness. The loudest voices make the same error, but from different directions: They invest in Donald Trump the future of America’s soul. But America is about more than Donald Trump. If he loses in his battles, it will not be proof that America is irremissibly lost. And if he wins, it will not be proof that America is irremissibly lost. Both visions are predicated on a lie about this country and how it works. But that lie can become true only if enough people decide to believe it. So don’t give the monkey wrench that power. 

Various & Sundry

Canine update: It’s been a very exciting week for the dogs. Over Memorial Day Weekend we took them on an adventure in the Sprinter. We spent two days at a bed and breakfast in Chestertown, Maryland, a really charming small town in Eastern Maryland that has an annual Tea Party Festival. Dogs aren’t permitted at the festival itself, though we saw a few rule-breakers. But this was a good opportunity to test the Sprinter’s climate control, which worked perfectly. We parked it under a shade tree and set the temperature to 70 degrees. We left the festival a little early, because as confident as I was, the consequences of getting it wrong were too terrible to contemplate. We came back to them sleeping in quiet comfort and took them to a dog beach where they had a great time (may you one day know the joy of a spaniel at the beach). I was particularly pleased that Zoë behaved herself around so many dogs. She even let a Corgi sniff her butt, which a younger Zoë would never have tolerated.  We then took the beasts camping in northern Maryland outside Taneytown (where I learned Fred Gwynn spent his final years). They took to it well.  Pippa got to swim in a creek about 600 times. We cooked brats over a campfire and watched The Man Who Would Be King in the van. A grand time was had by all. Meanwhile, Gracie stayed in D.C. Our daughter had friends over and they each took turns paying homage. Later in the week, our daughter had more friends over, including boys. I am proud to say that Zoë and Pippa did not like this and were insistent that they be allowed to monitor them. They protested vociferously when we made them come upstairs. Pippa seemed happy to be home until the thunderstorms came. She opted to hide in the safe room that is the bedroom closet. Things are back to normal now. Pippa has decided to sleep late pending sufficient belly rubs, which Zoë believes is a moral outrage. And she spends a good deal of time during the day, “manning” the wall

In other news …

I have a new research assistant at AEI, Aliza Fassett (which admirably rhymes with basset). And as a result, I am happy to announce the return of weird links!

And now, the weird stuff:

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.