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Pardon Me: From Il Duce to Trump, Authoritarians Use Pardons to Increase Their Power
"If I run, and if I win, we will treat those people from January 6 fairly...And if it requires pardons, we will give them pardons, because they are being treated so unfairly." Watching former President Donald Trump's Jan. 29 speech at a rally in Texas, one can sense his anger and his rising desperation.
Trump has big problems. He was booted out of office, his Jan. 6 coup attempt failed, and 2025, the year he could return to power legally, is a long way off. He faces multiple investigations, including a civil probe in which subpoenas have been issued for him, Donald Trump Jr., and Ivanka Trump. The prospect of him and his family being prosecuted accounts, in part, for his call in that speech for "the biggest protest that we have ever had" in the capital and around the country.
In promising pardons for Jan. 6 participants, Trump’s not just trying to keep people loyal to him. He's also letting elites and his base know that any future violence they plan or commit in the interests of returning him to power will be forgiven.
All of this is in keeping with authoritarian tradition. Illiberal leaders have long used pardons and amnesties to corrupt people, discourage dissent in and outside of the party, pose as all-powerful and yet generous individuals, and hide their crimes.
Amnesties and pardons have always been an efficient way for leaders to free up large numbers of the most criminal and unscrupulous elements of society for service to the party and the state, and make them indebted to the rulers in the process.
Benito Mussolini pioneered the strategy. In 1925, soon after he declared himself dictator, he pardoned all political criminals --his target population being the Blackshirts who had committed so much violence before and after the Fascist 1922 March on Rome.
Blackmailers, murderers, specialists in torture, and more were now available to serve in Il Duce's new militia, or take jobs in the party and in the state bureaucracy. To seem magnanimous, Mussolini also pardoned many imprisoned anti-Fascists, requiring them to write a "letter of submission" to him as a condition of their release (then he would read the letters in public to destroy the writer's credibility with other anti-Fascists).
Many authoritarians have marketed their amnesties as moments of "national unity" and "justice." Dictator Augusto Pinochet claimed that his restoration of "peace and order" in Chile made possible his 1978 amnesty of political criminals.
Yet the point of the junta’s measure was to reward lawlessness, since all "authors, accomplices, or concealers" of political crimes, including military and security service agents who had committed human rights abuses, had their service records cleansed of incriminating evidence. These individuals were rehabilitated so they could further assist the regime.
Venezuelan strongman Nicolás Maduro also called his 2020 pardon of over 100 political opponents "a moment of reconciliation and profound dialogue." His critics saw it differently. They termed it a ploy to buy off the opposition, which was then boycotting the upcoming legislative elections.
Maduro's clemencies sought to give the impression, in the Mussolini manner, that the opposition was cooperating with the government. Yet many of the pardoned had been jailed without ever having been charged --their "crime" was to oppose Maduro-- and some refused the whole premise of the act. "You don't have the authority to pardon anyone," wrote Juan Pablo Guanipa, vice president of the National Assembly of Venezuela.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has his own spin on this practice. He uses spurious lawsuits to harass Turks psychologically and financially, invoking article 299 of the Turkish Penal Code that forbids "insulting" the head of state. The scale of these lawsuits is staggering. More than 36,000 people from all walks of life were investigated in 2019 alone.
At strategic moments, such as during a period of repression, Erdogan then "withdraws" some of the lawsuits as a gesture of "unity." He did this during the crackdown that followed the 2016 coup attempt against him. Last November he withdrew 17 insult and defamation lawsuits against the leader of the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), Kemal Kiliçdaroglu, who has had 44 lawsuits filed against him by Erdogan since 2011. Kiliçdaroglu sees the cycle of aggression and its retraction as a "propaganda operation" and a way to silence and intimidate Turks.
The prominence of pardons as a tool of authoritarians is why we can count on Trump to pardon as many people involved in Jan. 6 as possible if he ever gets back his presidential powers. In Dec. 2020-Jan.2021, he had already pardoned key strategists: Gen. Michael Flynn, Steve Bannon, and Roger Stone. Now the GOP has recruited dozens of Jan. 6 participants to run for office, and some of them are under investigation. As of Jan. 2022, over 760 people have been arrested and charged with crimes relating to the assault on the Capitol.
Authoritarianism is about making government a safe harbor for criminals, and pardons are part of that. Don't be surprised if an amnesty in the autocratic tradition kicks off Trump's second term.