The Celebrity Pardoner

Donald Trump cares much more about the rich and famous than the common person.

Kim Kardashian arrives at the White House for her meeting with President Donald Trump (Carlos Barria / Reuters)

About the author: Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of the Up for Debate newsletter.

Cast your memory back to the bygone presidential campaign when a young, freshmen senator named Barack Obama was filling up stadiums with people chanting “Yes, we can.” His supporters saw an inspiring leader. For his detractors, the spectacle was absurd. The nation needed a statesman. And here were Democrats treating their nominee as if he was a celebrity. That negative perception ultimately became the subject of a John McCain television ad:

Now Donald Trump is in the White House after victories in the Republican primaries and the electoral college inseparable from his longstanding celebrity. He spent years as a reality-TV star. But his supporters saw no contradiction. He repeatedly promised that he would side with the common man against lawless elites in order to Make America Great Again. What’s amazing is how many still believe him, even as he illustrates that the common man is nothing to him compared to lawbreaking celebrities.

Roughly 2.2 million Americans are incarcerated. Nearly four million Americans have lost the right to vote, having been convicted of a felony. The Innocence Project is one of several organizations that could quickly produce a list of dubious convictions, often due in part to defendants too poor to pay a high-quality attorney.

But as surely as Citizen Trump was a publicity hound, President Trump only seems eager to pardon the tiny class of Americans most likely to employ a publicist.

I’d been marveling at cartoonish corruption of former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the beneficiary of a previous Trump pardon, and former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, who the president has said that he may pardon. But that was distracting me from a trait that they have in common. Credit for clarifying the emergent pattern goes to John Ziegler, the regularly insightful columnist.

“So far, Trump’s most high profile pardons have been of Joe Arpaio, Scooter” Libby, Jack Johnson, and Dinesh D’Souza,” he writes. “He is also said to be considering... reprieves for Martha Stewart and Rod Blagojevich, and has taken ‘counsel’ on another possible case from none other than Kim Kardashian.”

He continues:

Each one of these was particularly news-worthy because of the celebrity angle involved. Arpaio, Libby, and D’Souza are “conservative” media celebrities. Jack Johnson was a famous boxer who, more importantly, was recommended by Sylvester Stallone (a celebrity famous for pretending to be a boxer). Stewart and Blagojevich were both part of Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice” franchise. Kardashian is, of course, a celebrity because she is famous.

Only one pardon doesn’t fit the pattern. Ziegler’s ultimate conclusion: “We are now living in a world where it is far more important to have a celebrity take up your cause than for your cause to be just, and Trump is perfectly fine with that.”

That should come as no surprise. One needn’t pay much attention to know that Trump is obsessed with ratings and fame and obsessively seeks out vehicles to insert himself in judgment of celebrities.

So perhaps what’s most striking is the lack of backlash from his base. Like the rest of us, they encounter the occasional story about the wrongly imprisoned American citizen languishing in obscurity. They are, on average, more antagonistic to political and media elites than is the average American citizen. They purport to be on the side of the little guy themselves.

And yet, as Ziegler puts it, “Trump views humanity through the prism that there are two basic groups of people: the rich and/or famous, and everyone else. The first group matters greatly to him, the second means almost nothing.” And his supporters are either blind to it or don’t care, though little guys languish as Trump ponders a pardon for a politician who tried to sell a Senate seat.

See, Blagojevich was on Celebrity Apprentice. Matthew Charles, not so much.

Should Trump grant Kardashian’s request, no one should complain. On the contrary, Trump should be duly praised, for according to the BBC, the woman whose cause she advocates, Alice Marie Johnson, “has been behind bars for more than two decades” for a first-time, nonviolent drug offense. The 63-year-old great grandmother deserves relief, and if a celebrity brought that to Trump’s attention, that celebrity did good.

But unless Trump changes his overall approach to pardons, his supporters should wake up to yet another indicator that unless they have a highly rated TV show, or an eight-figure income, or a seven-figure Twitter following, the president cares so little about people like them that he wouldn’t so much as spare them from being caged unjustly—not if the alternative was lavishing attention on a Martha Stewart or Dinesh D’Souza, free and again living large, but with a felony record.

His priorities are clear, damning, and ought to earn him contempt.