Much can and has been said about the indictment of former U.S. President Donald Trump on criminal charges. It is unprecedented, the first time a former U.S. president has been charged with a criminal offense. It is tawdry beyond belief, involving the payment of hush money to a porn star just before the start of the 2016 presidential campaign. It ends the 200-year tradition of “bi-partisanship” that has protected sitting and even former presidents from criminal prosecution.
However, the most important thing may be that the U.S. ruling establishment has just lost what little control it still retained over the political process after Trump’s challenge. This is true in at least two ways.
First, the indictment is bound to take U.S. politics into even less uncharted territory than they have been in over the past many years, ensuring the 2024 presidential race will be little short of chaos. Both parties will take ever more intransigent positions, evacuating the middle ground and yet will struggle ever more desperately for support and in a “gloves off,” “no holds barred” campaign that can only sink to new lows.
In hailing the indictment as the triumph of the rule of law, the Democratic Party, closest to the U.S. political establishment, is admitting that its president’s record is not enough to run on and the only platform on which it can hope to win the next presidential election is defending (what is left of) U.S.’s “democracy” against the apocalyptic threat of Donald Trump. Having been elected to end the Trump era, to address the pandemic and the grave issues facing the U.S. economy and society, President Joe Biden has little to show for his first term and must extend the Trump era to win again. The coming race will see Democrats get on ever-higher legal horses. While far from riding them to victory given that core issues of inflation, employment, financial crises, public health and many more remain unaddressed, the Democrats will certainly ensure to rally Trump’s core support against the Democratic “witch-hunt.”
The Republican situation is even more complex. The indictment interrupted the rescue of the party from the clutches of Trump and its return to the establishment’s bosom by nominating Florida governor, Rick De Sanctis, as the Republican presidential candidate. Trump’s social base which had been melting, solidified with the indictment. Deftly exploiting the publicity, the Trump camp put out that if Trump is handcuffed and “mug-shotted” on April 4, the resulting images would only fuel their campaign. In the 48 hours following the indictment, the Trump campaign raised over $5 million. New York City is bracing for a massing of Trump supporters when he surrenders to the law on Tuesday. All this has forced major Republican figures, from De Sanctis to former vice president, Mike Pence, and many others to close ranks behind Trump despite having previously distanced themselves from him.
All this indicates that even if Trump is somehow prevented from running, he will have made the Republican Party a Trumpist one. However, while the legal proceedings case will rally the famous “core” support of Donald Trump, variously estimated at between 35 and 40 percent of the U.S. electorate, the case can only have deleterious effects for Republicans more widely, putting off such a large majority of voters that even engineering the sort of victory Trump won in 2016 will not be possible. While Trump’s Republican rivals may only be lining up behind him to take his doggedly loyal support base with them after dumping him at the first available opportunity, they may be turning themselves into an unelectable force.
The second way in which the U.S. ruling establishment is likely to lose its control over U.S. politics was revealed by Trump’s former attorney general, William Barr, who had refused to support attempts to overturn the 2020 election verdict. That it was the New York District Attorney bringing this indictment forward, rather than the Federal Department of Justice, he said, had opened the door to other lower courts filing more cases. “Now that the Rubicon has been crossed, any one of them can find federal candidates or federal officeholders and so forth, can find some state law they want to pursue the person on and get themselves into the national political arena.”
Certainly, Donald Trump faces more prosecutions, including those of interfering in vote-counting in 2020 with the aim of turning the election result, business fraud, sexual assault, tax fraud, causing losses to investors in his own business, and on his role in the January 6 events. Moreover, there is nothing to prevent cases from being launched against members of the Biden camp, pre-eminently Hunter Biden, the president’s son. Let the games begin.
Radhika Desai is a professor of political studies at the University of Manitoba in Canada. The article reflects the author’s opinions and not necessarily the views of The Southern African Times.