Trumpism Won’t Be Defeated by the Judicial System Alone

It’s good that Donald Trump and his cronies are facing increasing legal pressure. But the threat of Trump’s politics won’t go away until we change the conditions that gave rise to them.

Former president Donald Trump speaks at a rally at the Covelli Centre in Youngstown, Ohio, September 17, 2022. (Jeff Swensen / Getty Images)

Donald Trump and his cronies have found themselves under so much legal scrutiny recently that sometimes it can be hard to keep track of what new or newly revealed investigation is underway against which former Trump aide.

While the investigations and possible prosecutions are a welcome change from the culture of impunity that the American elite largely enjoys, they aren’t a panacea. With little or no change in the conditions that allowed Trump to gain popularity in the first place, there’s no reason to think that he and his followers will go away. Trump and Trumpism will only be finally defeated politically, not judicially.

Trump’s most recent round of legal troubles started when the FBI executed a search warrant on his estate in Florida, where they say they found a significant number of classified documents Trump improperly took with him and stored in unsecured locations after he left office.

Separately, high-ranking Trump aides like Rudy Giuliani — and potentially Trump himself — face a criminal investigation in Georgia over alleged attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 election there.

Trump’s umbrella company faces a likely civil lawsuit from New York State attorney general Letitia James, as well as a potential criminal case — the Trump Organization’s former CFO already pleaded guilty and pledged to testify against the company.

Then there is Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, who was recently found guilty of contempt of Congress. In a separate case, Bannon was charged last week with fraud, conspiracy, and money laundering. Bannon allegedly engaged in a scheme to defraud donors who thought they were donating to build a bigger border wall. Prosecutors say the money was in fact largely used to pay expenses and salaries for Bannon and other alleged conspirators.

Most politically significant, though, are the congressional hearings into the January 6 attack on the Capitol and the related Justice Department investigations, which encompass both the events at the Capitol and an alleged conspiracy to send fake pro-Trump electors to Congress for certification.

The New York Times reported that senior Trump advisors Stephen Miller and Brian Jack received subpoenas from the Justice Department last week in a related investigation. On Monday, the Times reported that the Justice Department had issued another forty subpoenas and had seized the cell phones of at least two more Trump aides, including “director of Election Day operations” Mike Roman. A longtime close aide to Trump, Dan Scavino, was also among those to receive a subpoena.

Not even the MyPillow guy is safe. Mike Lindell, the company’s CEO who kept pushing election fraud conspiracy theories at the White House even after most of Trump’s aides had tacitly admitted defeat, was served with a search warrant on Tuesday.

On its face, it is difficult to see any of this ending well for Trump. Even if he doesn’t end up charged himself — something that could certainly still happen — he and many of his advisors will have a significant amount of time and money tied up fending off investigators. And the notoriously paranoid Trump will probably spend a lot of time obsessing over who among the investigated remain sufficiently loyal to him, further removing his focus from a political comeback.

But pointing out Trump’s many alleged instances of wrongdoing has always been far easier than making the allegations stick. As president, he survived two attempts at impeachment. He has been publicly accused of rape or sexual assault by dozens of women, including at least six before his election, with no serious consequences. Nor were voters deterred by a preelection recording of him essentially admitting to sexual assault. Over the course of his career, he has been involved in at least 3,500 legal cases.

While prosecutors and the Justice Department have taken pains to not appear political, US politicians enjoy a degree of deference from investigators nearly unheard of in other democracies. That means that virtually any investigation at all will appear at least partly politically motivated — and of course Trump asserts that is their only motivation.

But in fact, a parallel campaign does exist to legally prevent Trump from running again.

“If he does choose to run for office, we stand ready to challenge his eligibility under Section 3 of the 14th Amendment in multiple states,” a lawyer for a liberal legal group told the New York Times last week. Section 3 prevents people who have engaged in insurrection from serving in the government. Democrats in Congress are quietly writing bills to make the effort easier, proposing a law that would legally declare the events of January 6 an attempted insurrection and allowing any citizen to file a lawsuit to disqualify a candidate on those grounds.

There’s nothing wrong with such efforts, exactly, though they are unlikely to work. What little precedent exists for enforcing Section 3 comes mostly from challenging the eligibility of men who fought for the Confederacy. The law has rarely been applied in modern times, though plaintiffs successfully removed a minor New Mexico official from office after accusing him of engaging in insurrection.

Given the right-wing federal judiciary’s consistent willingness to upend much more settled matters of law in order to advance the conservative agenda, it is almost impossible to seriously imagine legal challenges to a potential Trump candidacy lasting very long.

More to the point, such legal challenges won’t do anything to change the conditions that led to Trump’s popularity in the first place. In fact, though he left office with a historically low approval rating, Trump’s popularity has actually increased since then, even as the many investigations into him continue. Joe Biden’s approval rating only rose to roughly match Trump’s after he finally caved to pressure from the Left and partially canceled student debt.

Beyond that, even in the unlikely event Donald Trump winds up behind bars and totally disqualified from office, any number of Republicans with ideas indistinguishable from his are ready to take his place.

With voter confidence in the economy plunging since Biden took office and the Federal Reserve blasé about engineering a recession in the near future, Democrats still face an uphill battle to maintain control of Congress this fall. But we can see a basic truth from Biden’s recent increase in popularity: people like you when you do things that help them.

The Democrats have long had less interest in winning support by doing popular things than in telling everyone why they want to do something popular but just can’t manage it, or in developing ever-more convoluted eligibility requirements to determine who really “deserves” their help. It doesn’t have to be that way.

The sense of apathy and abandonment that results from this dynamic led historically core Democratic voters to move toward Trump in record numbers, even as he anchored much of his campaign in hateful rhetoric. It is a small but positive step for the political health of the country that Trump and his underlings might face some form of legal accountability. But absent a feasible alternative vision of solidarity and collective care, Trump’s appeals to divisiveness and selfishness are not going anywhere.