Design by Samantha Sweig. Buy this photo.

Kicking and screaming, former President Donald Trump slowly faded out of view for the better part of the summer. Outside his core supporters, most Americans readily put memories of his tumultuous four years behind them. Potential 2024 Republican Party contenders began peaking up their heads.One might have reasonably believed that the era of Trump was finally coming to an end.

Then the FBI searched Mar-a-Lago, and all heads whipped back to the former president. 

The Department of Justice blundered by letting Trump break the news and control the story. They remained silent for too long and at the country’s expense. Still, no one has spoken publicly regarding the nuclear secrets recovered from Trump’s residence.

The blowback from the search has been both predictable and disturbing. Talk of civil war among the far-right has become widespread on social media. Trump’s allies in Congress have threatened political violence should the former president be charged. In Cincinnati, a Trump supporter went so far as to try attacking an FBI office. This threat has been dire for some time. Trump’s role in inciting the insurrection following his loss in the 2020 election is clear. As U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., put it, “Trump summoned the mob, assembled the mob and lit the flame of [the] attack.” The former president bears primary responsibility for the carnage at the Capitol. More recently, eyeing another presidential run, Trump put himself in lockstep with the most authoritarian corners of his electorate by suggesting the Jan. 6 rioters deserved full pardons and government apologies.

Enter President Joe Biden to make things worse. During a speech in Maryland last August, Biden compared Trumpism to “semi-fascism.” A few days later at Independence Hall, shrouded in sinister red lighting and flanked by two shadowy Marines, Biden declared MAGA Republicans a clear and present danger to American democracy. He sputtered through a 20-minute tirade effectively castigating Trump and his voters as enemies of the state.

Trump escalated by literally calling Biden “an enemy of the state.”

Biden is right, Trump is a semi-fascist, but he failed to make an important distinction in his speech. Trump and his supporters are not one and the same, and must not be regarded as such. 

Trump threatens the very foundation of our Republic. He must never wield the power of office again.Trump’s supporters, on the other hand, do not deserve such condemnation. Like most Americans, they disagree with the direction the country is moving. They want to see change. Left behind and angry, they placed their faith into the wrong hands and had their loyalty exploited for political gain. Trump has convinced his base of terrible lies. Paranoid, distrustful and well-armed, MAGA Republicans have pledged themselves to the wrong leader. But they are still Americans. Biden must take care not to forget it.

No amount of wishful thinking will make them disappear or make them suddenly switch sides. If Biden continues to paint them as enemies, that is what they will be. People do not take kindly to insults. Further antagonism and belligerence towards Trump’s base will only drive them further into the grip of the former president. The current administration must proceed with caution. Rather than berate his fellow citizens from the steps of a sacred American landmark, misguided though they may be, Biden should court them away from extremism with words of welcome and warmth.

To follow Abraham Lincoln’s example would be wise. At his first inaugural address, the 16th president addressed a fractured nation: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.” With the Civil War looming and the future of the Union uncertain, Lincoln did not villainize the South, no matter how deserving of villainization they were. He opened his arms in the interest of preserving the Republic.

Biden and the Department of Justice must internalize this lesson. Trump deserves to be prosecuted, but to prosecute him would be folly. He tainted the office with criminal behavior the likes of which the presidency has never seen and must never see again. He is absolutely a would-be dictator. But he is an old would-be dictator. Trump’s years as a political force are limited. His support dwindles smaller. Most Americans have no illusions about his credibility. The FBI has recovered the classified documents from Mar-a-Lago; Trump can no longer use them for devious ends. No further steps need to be taken. He does not have the widespread popularity required to win back the presidency. Nothing productive would come from charges.

A criminal case would become a rallying cry. Opportunists would use it to inspire violence and divide the country further. We must ease tensions before the chance disappears for good.

The right step, albeit the uncomfortable one, is to turn attention away from Trump. Let him disappear on his own. He is already a cultural hero to the far right; to lock him away would elevate him to martyrdom, as well as further isolate his already extremist supporters. Let him protest and shout. Let the old man make every attempt to remain relevant as the country moves on. But his best efforts will be to no avail. His personality cult will wail for a time, but without the pretext of criminal charges to launch their revolution, average Trump supporters will slowly return to rank-and-file Republicanism or retake their place as inactive independents. His opponents will decry the terrible failure of justice that allowed such a man to walk free, but they too will move on. No one will be satisfied, but Trump’s threat to democracy will wither away, and the Republic will endure.

Jack Brady is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at jackrbra@umich.edu