An independently wealthy Republican president is tossed out of office after a single term amid massive economic hardship and fears of political violence. There are rumors he was under surveillance or about to be arrested. Relentless, bitter, appalled at his Democratic successor, he stews in his elegant midtown Manhattan suite, plotting his next move. Except it was not Trump Tower but the Waldorf-Astoria and the ex-president was Herbert Hoover.
But in this case, history neither repeats itself nor rhymes. Hoover not only respected the presidency, he honored it in his post-presidency. When Franklin Roosevelt announced a bank holiday immediately after his inauguration, Hoover declared he should “receive the whole-hearted support of every citizen.” A decade later, when 100 million people in Europe were at risk of starving, Harry Truman enlisted Hoover’s help managing post-war relief; together they probably saved more lives than any two figures of the 20th– century.
Most ex-presidents enter post Oval life bearing scars and regrets. Some take up painting; some lean into atonement. “We all have sorrows,” as Jimmy Carter told me. Or as the prayer of confession puts it, presidents often leave office haunted by what they have done and what they left undone. The libraries, the foundations and philanthropies, even the memoirs, serve both as explanation and expiation, as their legacies settle and harden.
Illustration by Edel Rodriguez for TIME
Such public service, whether in the name of politics or penitence, has been more the rule than the exception of modern ex-presidents, and so it becomes one more norm that Donald Trump breaks as he enters his long expected season of legal accountability. That he would be the first president ever indicted is both historic and predictable–as is the chance he also will be the second, third and even fourth, in multiple jurisdictions over myriad criminal charges.
The odds were never great that Trump would see his post presidency as a chance to serve the public good, having not seen the presidency that way. He never showed that he felt the weight of the office and its fateful duties; it was more a profit center, a platform for shakedowns and ego strokes. The post presidency is a platform for, as he put it, “retribution.” Plus, sales.
And this is the ongoing damage he does, the careless splashing of paint stripper on the majesty of the American presidency. His peers were not perfect; but few were vandals. Other presidents have tried to salvage campaigns, but none we know of with hush money to a porn star. Other ex-presidents exalt their faithful supporters–but not when they are serving time for insurrection. Other presidents have turned their stature into a revenue stream, giving speeches at six figures a pop; it’s a safe bet that none thought about merch featuring a mug shot.
John Minchillo—APFormer President Donald Trump arrives at the Manhattan District Attorney’s office on April 4, 2023.
Which brings us to the deeper tragedy. For millions of people who’ve believed and supported Trump from the start, defending the rule of law requires defending him. Millions of voters are breaking norms too; if his campaign is telling the truth that the money flowed faster the minute Trump was indicted—$4 million in the first 24 hours, a quarter from first time donors they say—then we get what we reward. He has gotten this far by tapping into needs and wants that long pre-date him. The networks running blanket coverage of baggage handlers and motorcades do so in response to perceived demand. They also help create that demand. The Republican lawmakers who know better yet make him a martyr make cynicism cringe.
As a measure of people’s loss of faith in institutions, in courts and judges and prosecutors, in fairness and process and equal justice for all, the entire spectacle is a crime scene. Presidents swear an oath to uphold the laws; former presidents are granted protections and privileges because they served and are in a position to serve in new ways, and in the past presidents have used that opportunity to do tremendous global good. The scandal of Donald Trump’s passage through public life rests both in what he has done and what he has left undone–so much power to do good, deployed instead to divide and conquer.