From the time he made the most ridiculous entrance in political history, riding down a golden escalator to spew an almost unbroken stream of anti-immigrant rhetoric, one part of the appeal of Donald Trump has been clear: He’s a racist. A misogynist. An unfettered narcissist whose wealth and connections have allowed him to cheat contractors, defraud investors, insult whoever he chooses, endanger workers, and sexually assault women.
He’s so crude he’ll talk about the size of his daughter’s breasts in a radio interview. So heartless he’ll make his disdain for prisoners of war and Gold Star parents into a campaign plank. So brazen he’ll tell obvious lies, tell a different lie five minutes later, then deny what he said on camera in front of an audience.
Trump is an unrepentant bully. That alone is enough to make him appealing to many, for the same reason third-grade bullies have henchmen.
But it’s not the big pull. The big pull, the thing that turned Trump from a clown on a gaudy yellow staircase into a nightmare in the White House, is that he holds out the same offer to his followers that he enjoys: the promise of cruelty without consequence.
Over the course of Trump’s time in the big chair, he pardoned Steve Bannon when his former campaign chief defrauded fans out of $25 million to pay for a fictional border wall. He gave racist Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio a pass on contempt of court. Right-wing pundit Dinesh D'Souza got to blow past giving illegal campaign contributions. Erstwhile foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos was given a gold star after lying to federal investigators. Conservative talk show host Conrad Black may have lost when he appealed his obstruction case to the Supreme Court, but Trump took care of that. Conservative lobbyist Roger Stone was convicted of seven felonies with direct connections to Trump’s campaign. Just like that, Trump set him free.
Trump might as well have put up a sign that declared any friend of his could do as they pleased, without concern about morality or legality. But anyone on the team was also up for this Get Out of Jail Free card.
But it wasn’t just that Trump brushed away laws like cobwebs when it came to his friends. He made it abundantly clear that he was there for those who would swear allegiance, like a trio of Republican ex-congressmen—Duncan Hunter, Chris Collins, and Steve Stockman—who were given passes on everything from securities fraud to money laundering.
The franchise was also extended to those who did things that Trump and his fan base admired. That included giving full pardons to Dwight and Steven Hammond, a pair of Oregon ranchers and serial arsonists who were part of Ammon Bundy’s anti-government uprising.
Then Trump topped himself by pardoning Clint Lorance for casually ordering the murder of two civilians in Afghanistan. And pardoning Mathew Golsteyn for murdering a civilian. And he pardoned Edward Gallagher, who not only murdered a prisoner by slowly sticking a knife into his neck, but went on to desecrate the man’s body before posing for a few pictures.
All of them were found guilty in military courts before officers and men who had served in the same areas. All of them had their convictions reversed, and their crimes blessed, by Trump.
If there’s any doubt that this trend would continue, Trump has already declared he would pardon a “large portion” of those convicted in the Jan. 6 insurgency. He’s also announced his support for Daniel Penny, who choked homeless man Jordan Neely to death in front of multiple cameras on the New York subway. (Trump’s far from alone in this one. Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley have both promised to pardon Penny, too.)
It’s been said many times that in the modern Republican Party, cruelty is the point, But Donald Trump’s real promise is that those who follow his path get to be cruel—and never pay for it.
Trump himself is the exemplar of this system. He’s weathered over 3,000 lawsuits, often resulting from his refusal to pay his debts. He’s walked away from charges of racial discrimination with nothing more than a promise to be good next time. He’s faced down 106 charges of money laundering, class-action lawsuits for condos that were never built, state charges over charitable theft, and a federal case over a fraudulent “university,” and the worst thing that happened to him was that he had to carve off less money than he spent decorating his tacky apartment. Even a jury trial finding that Trump sexually assaulted writer E. Jean Carroll didn’t result in a dip in his polls, or cost him more than he can grift in “donations” from his followers in less than a week.
All of this is why it’s vitally important that Trump not just be indicted, not just be found guilty, but that he pay by serving a serious, lengthy prison sentence. Otherwise, his supporters will receive exactly the message Trump has been sending them all along: Special people, people like Trump, can always walk away.
Even the courtesies that the FBI and Department of Justice have been providing Trump so far—the courtesy warnings before indictments are produced, the waving of mugshots, the failure to impose any bail or travel restrictions—only serve to reinforce the message that, even when caught, nothing bad really happens. His followers see that. They internalize it. They live it.
Trump himself keeps complaining that if the government can come after him, they can come after anyone, and in a way that's true: If Trump has to pay, then his promise to his supporters falls apart. Only by seeing that Trump receives punishment on the scale of anyone else charged with the same crimes can his supporters be convinced that their bully can’t protect them. That the next pardon won’t have their name on it. That eventually, everyone has to pay for their actions.
That lesson had better be taught. It had better be clear. And it had better be soon.
Donald Trump is facing even more legal jeopardy and the sharks in the Republican Party seem to sense there is some blood in the water. Chris Christie has made his campaign all about going directly at Trump, and Ron DeSantis seems to be closer and closer to becoming completely isolated from the field.