Former president of the US Donald Trump is now facing four trials on 91 separate counts whose maximum sentences, could potentially amount to hundreds of years of prison time. The cases’ verdicts will not just determine what happens to Donald Trump. They could be the closest thing to an official pronouncements on some of the most hard-fought issues in American politics.
In the two most important cases, the new Georgia indictment and special counsel Jack Smith’s federal January 6 indictment, the key question is whether Trump’s effort to overturn the results of the 2020 election constituted a crime against the American people.
In the lesser cases, the Mar-a-Lago document retention and New York hush money cases, the core question is whether Trump’s well-documented habits of lying and unethical behavior led him into outright criminal territory, says Vox.com, a Website that purports to explain complicated political issues in plain language.
With such important issues on the line, juries will be deciding more than Trump’s guilt or innocence on specific charges. They will be issuing a broader ruling: determining if Trump and Trumpism have, beyond a reasonable doubt, run afoul of America’s democratic system and the rule of law.
Such a trial is unprecedented in American history, but it is exactly what’s supposed to happen in a democracy when a political leader (allegedly) commits crimes against democracy.
Democracy is, at the very highest level, a system for turning the idea of human equality into practical political reality. When leaders can get away with whatever they want, there is no real political equality: We are electing kings, not fellow citizens. If powerful actors try to act above the law, independent institutions need to check their misbehavior.
Criminal prosecution is the ultimate recourse in such cases, and one not infrequently employed other developed nations.
Of course, the charges should not be frivolous or politically motivated — but the allegations against Trump, are neither.
The Georgia election case and federal case concerning Trump’s actions on the day of the attempted coup on Capitol Hill on January 6th, 2021 are legally serious and factually well-supported; it is a sign of health for America’s institutions that prosecutors are not so cowed by Trump’s political influence that they fear the consequences of challenging him.
Yet at the same time, there’s good reason to doubt that the court system is really the right place to resolve these issues, and there is an argument that they should be put to voters at large.
The federal judiciary has been deeply politicized, as has the public’s evaluation of the merits of the various cases against Trump. These developments both reflect a deeper problem: In profoundly polarized societies, like the United States, supposedly neutral political institutions become pulled into and warped by conflict between social groups.
It seems unlikely that a guilty verdict would settle the question of Trump for good; for Trump’s core supporters any jury verdict would simply seem like a conspiracy by political opponents. In addition, the US justice system depends to a large extent on plea bargains, where the accused pleads guilty to lesser charges, in exchange for leniency, but Trump appears to positively relish the opportunity to go on trial.
Opinion polls suggest the cases are not hurting his bid for the GOP’s 2024 nomination; if he’s the nominee, he’s pretty much guaranteed a reasonable chance at winning the presidency and regaining access to the executive powers of the White House, which, amazingly, include the power to pardon himself of any and all federal crimes.
In this sense, America appears to be somewhat similar to Israel where the ongoing corruption trial of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is fueling a huge crisis in the country’s history of democratic government.
The Trump prosecutions are thus revealing a paradox at the heart of American democracy: its institutions are at once both strong and weak.
They are strong, in the sense that many act the way they should in an advanced democracy — taking legal steps to defend the system against the novel Trumpian threat.
They are weak, in the sense that they lack the universal public legitimacy to fully quash the threat through these legal means — a reflection of the fundamental social divisions that gave rise to Trump in the first place.
This paradox could shape not only the political consequences of the four Trump trials, but the long-term prospects for the survival of the world’s oldest democracy.
In political science, healthy democracies are often referred to as “consolidated democracies.” It’s a typically bloodless academic term, but it refers to an important idea: that democracy becomes truly stable when it is understood as “the only game in town,” meaning that basically all relevant political players accept that free and fair elections should determine who gets to wield power.
In a completely consolidated democracy, this most fundamental rule of the political game is accepted by all. Challenging it would be as absurd as a football player demanding 20 points after scoring a touchdown.
Trump’s challenge to the 2020 election threw America’s status as a consolidated democracy into question — as did, in a less obvious way, his habit of ignoring laws and political norms whenever he felt like it.
A recent Associated Press poll found that a bare majority of Americans, 53 percent, support the Justice Department’s decision to indict Trump for his behavior in the 2020 election. This top line hides profound partisan splits; 85 percent of Democrats approve of the prosecution, while just 16 percent of Republicans do.
A July poll on the other federal case, relating to improper possession and storage of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago, is striking in a different way. It found that 50 percent of Republicans did not believe that there were classified documents at Mar-a-Lago at all — a fact that is not actually in question, as there are undeniable photographs of boxes of documents at Trump’s residence in the indictment.
An August poll from the New York Times found that just 17 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents believe Trump has committed any “serious” federal crimes at all. An additional 10 percent said they believe Trump “did something wrong” but not seriously criminal in his handling of classified documents, arguably the case where Trump’s guilt is (in purely legal terms) the most clear-cut.
These findings are not outliers: Over and over again, pollsters find that a majority of Republicans do not believe Trump is guilty of any crimes and suspect the prosecutions are being brought for essentially political reasons.
This reflects not only deep support for Trump in the Republican Party, but widespread distrust in American institutions and acceptance of Trump’s views about the legitimacy of the electoral system.
A July poll from Monmouth found that 68 percent of Republicans believe Biden won the 2020 election “due to voter fraud,” a figure nearly identical to Monmouth’s findings in the weeks immediately after the election.
These numbers reflect a certain hollowness in the American institutional response. Despite the strikingly robust effort by elements of the political system to defend itself, the system is incapable of addressing the root of the problem: authentic support for Trump’s authoritarian actions and worldview.
Sources: Vox, CNN, BBC.