long . lines and ripples

The End of Political Exile

Trump stopped being president today.

It is possible that he will still be impeached, which would more or less deny him a chance for further participation in national politics.

Still, despite everything that has happened since he lost, a good number of the 70+ million people who voted for him remain more loyal to Trump than to any part of government. I’ve read a lot of talk that he is “diminished,” but that can only be known with time. For now, it is reasonable to assume that he still wields much soft power and influence with his people.

Ours is hardly the first culture to realize that a figure ejected from political power remains dangerous, in some cases even more destabilizing than someone in power.

But what to do about Trump? A punishment that used to exist, but which is no longer available to us, is exile: permanent banishment from the community.

Athenian democracy, for example, allowed for both exile and ostracism, the latter of which typically meant removal from the community for a period of ten years, with no loss of property or diminishment in class status upon return. In many cases, exile would technically be voluntary. A citizen might be legally punished by being stripped of basic personal rights (e.g., the right not to be killed), and would elect to flee as a result. Ostracism, by contrast, was a codified punishment usually applied by a popular vote of eligible citizens, making it a particularly powerful and grave application of democratic power. 1

What resources does our political system–a modern, liberal culture–have to deal with someone who is not (yet) a convicted criminal, but who remains a dangerous influence within public life? For an open society it is a difficult problem. The authorities are not supposed to make overtly prescriptive institutional decisions about the “good” or “bad” aspects of political life. Ideas are allowed into the open air, and the harmful ones are supposed to die by lack of interest. This may yet work with Donald Trump, but so far the model has been tested to its limit.

What is needed is a way of getting Trump out of American culture, to a place where enough of his worst desires are sated, with the goal that he no longer cares to influence public opinion. In other words, the country needs a solution with some of the properties of the ancient punishment of exile, albeit in a modern form. These include:

  1. The person exiled gets to keep aspects of his or her life as an individual. You can be comfortable, even lavish, in your personal circumstances, as long as you are not prominent.
  2. The person is removed from the physical scene of his or her influence. The most important test of whether you will have the opportunity to influence others is whether you are in their vicinity, in front of their senses or within their imagination (Trump does mostly the latter). This means the physical location, where others are inclined to meet with them and scheme, and where the person will be seen by others: filmed, photographed, written about, gossiped over, etc.
  3. The person’s ability to communicate with the country of exile is curtailed under threat of punishment. Exile is social death that you survive.
  4. The punishment needn’t take your whole life. You have to leave until your influence evaporates (e.g., ostracism). At that point, the punishment is complete. Once you are forgotten, part of the past, you can come back.

If such an exile existed today, it would deprive Trump of a public persona, which is what makes him dangerous. This would be a uniquely effective and tortuous punishment for Trump. As a matter of personality, he desperately seeks public attention. Trump gets rich and accrues power by holding our attention. He was never satisfied being an anonymous rich person like the rest of his family.

Now, even if exile were workable within the terms of a liberal society, it would be inconceivable in a virtual world, held together by modern media, where almost anyone can be anywhere as long as he or she is captured on a screen. But excluding these concerns, I am not aware of exile cropping up as a punishment anymore among modern states from the twentieth century onward, liberal or authoritarian. Dante and Napoleon were exiled in their day. Now, we have authoritarian states that hunt their citizens down both within and without, going to great lengths to keep them inside the country and punish them. Across liberal countries, we have Interpol, which operates under the assumption that countries want to find persons of state interest and bring them back within their borders.

This seems like a promising topic for a political theorist to address: the end of exile as a punishment, alongside the rise of the modern state and bureaucratic control. In a brief search, I couldn’t find any books or articles that considered it.

  1. Cf. Sara Forsdyke, “Exile, Ostracism, and Democracy: The Politics of Expulsion in Ancient Greece” (2005). For a background on exile in Athens, see her Introduction. For an overview of ostracism, see Chapter Four, a section called “The Procedure of Ostracism.” ↩︎


Sara Forsdyke, Exile, Ostracism, and Democracy: The Politics of Expulsion in Ancient Greece. Princeton University Press, 2005.