It is no exaggeration to say that the future of the greatest democracy on earth will hinge on the trials of Donald Trump, and the political furore that will accompany them. And, as with every domestic issue in America, this will have profound global implications.
The allegations announced last week against the former president regarding his efforts to overturn the 2020 election results are clearly the most material of cases he faces, if potentially the most difficult to prove.
When it goes to court next year, he will be on trial for what he essentially represents; a threat to American democracy. Indeed, as special counsel Jack Smith argued when announcing the indictment, he is accused of being behind the greatest threat in the country’s 307 years of existence: “an unprecedented assault on the seat of American democracy”.
As Gideon Rachman has written in the Financial Times, Trump has compromised three critical pillars of democracy. First, that all sides respect the outcome of an election and the leaders elected therefrom. Second, that nobody – not even a former president – is above the law. And, finally, that the ultimate interpretation of the truth is up to the courts of law, which must command the respect of all politicians and broader society. Such is the rule of law.
Trump’s defence against the indictment rests on rejecting that third principle. He presents the charges as a politically driven witch-hunt.
Followers of years of legal proceedings involving South Africa’s ex-president Jacob Zuma might find this somewhat familiar territory. In a statement made just after the indictment was issued, the Trump campaign compared the federal government’s prosecution of him to “Nazi Germany in the 1930s, the former Soviet Union, and other authoritarian, dictatorial regimes”.
What makes this all particularly toxic and dangerous for America and, by extension, the democratic world, is the timing.
Trump’s trial for conspiracy to overturn the last presidential election is likely to take place in the midst of the next presidential election — in which he remains the favourite to be the Republican party nominee. Trump’s strategy will be to turn the 2024 election campaign into a second trial running in parallel, before the court of public opinion.
Furthermore, it is likely that Trump will face five or more separate sets of legal proceedings over the coming year. The fact that Trump faces so many different charges is, to his detractors, proof of his profound corruption. For his supporters, however, the sheer number of cases – and the fact that they are all coming to a head in the middle of an election – is simply proof that he is the victim of a vast government conspiracy.
Any hopes that next year’s US election might see a return to the more naïve and respectful campaigns of the pre-Trumpian era, when issues as quaint as economic and foreign policy shaped the debate, have been extinguished.
All will be subsumed by whether one believes Trump is what he says he is – a victim of a deep-state plot to “lock him up” – or a liar.
Sadly, as with all things political in America in 2023, in this debate there is no grey area, no opportunity for “finding common ground”.
It looks set to be the kind of brutally antagonistic, Us v Them slug-fest seen in 2016 and 2020. While a Trump victory remains an unlikely outcome in 2024, it cannot be ruled out.
Sadly, the ongoing Trumpian saga is merely symptomatic of a much broader malaise. As Senator Bernie Sanders has argued, American society is broken.
Such are the vast chasms between the bipolar extremes – one democratic, liberal, “woke”; the other Republican, freedom-loving, “gun-toting” – that there is simply no opportunity for any constructive conversations between them.
America has become a latter-day Babel.
This is not to say that all Americans are extremists. The vast majority are of course in the middle ground. The all-time high disapproval ratings of Trump show that Americans are tiring of his antics and are increasingly repulsed by his behaviour. But the tragedy is that in the media and in politics, the tail is wagging the dog.
The extremes are driving the narratives.
One does not have to be an expert in political science to know that such a dysfunctional set of incompatible discourses guarantee a sub-optimal outcome for all.
All that can result from such a torrid situation is a race to the bottom of name-calling and anger-baiting. Any hopes for productive or constructive bipartisan political outcomes are left at the door of the Capitol.
In a sign of the broader recognition of this, on the same day as the Trump indictment was announced, Fitch – one of the three main global rating agencies – downgraded the US, citing “governance concerns”. Simply put, the US political system is dysfunctional.
An example of this is the bitter Congressional battles that keep exploding over the debt ceiling. And while the last such stand-off was resolved in June, the shouting — and threats of a government shutdown — may return this autumn when negotiations restart over the 2024 budget.
The broader issue, however, is that the political ecosystem is so polarised that it is hard to imagine Congress ever taking the sensible steps needed to tackle America’s fiscal problems.
Going into 2024, such an important bipartisan debate looks like an impossibility.
The frontrunner for the Republican nomination has something more pressing to worry about – either being elected to the Oval Office or ending up in a prison cell.
As students of African politics know all too well, having a presidential candidate with such a binary set of outcomes is no way to run a democracy. BM