Trump Won’t Be Defeated Through Indictments Alone

Donald Trump deserves to be indicted and prosecuted. But his legal troubles may not end his political career, much less stop the rise of the broader Trump-inflected right. We’ll only defeat Trumpism by building an attractive political alternative.

Donald Trump arrives at a rally at the Waco Regional Airport on March 25, 2023 in Waco, Texas. (Brandon Bell / Getty Images)

On Thursday, Donald Trump was indicted in Manhattan. The charges related to the funding of a nondisclosure agreement he signed with the adult performer Stormy Daniels regarding an extramarital affair he had with her.

It would be great if the charges derailed Trump, but as the Nation argued convincingly, that is very unlikely. In short, Trump has many ways to delay the proceedings and a fair number of strong legal defenses; the prosecution is probably reaching further than it can grasp on several legal questions, and even if Trump is found guilty and his guilt is upheld over multiple appeals, the most likely punishment is a fine.

During all of this, he will continue to campaign, and to the extent that some of his popularity draws on his whining about the establishment being out to get him, the indictment may even boost his esteem in the eyes of his supporters.

Beyond the Manhattan case, Trump also faces three much more serious investigations: one in Georgia regarding his alleged efforts to cajole state officials into overturning Joe Biden’s victory and two interrelated investigations conducted by the US Justice Department regarding his alleged attempts to illegally remain in office after losing the 2020 election and his conduct on January 6, 2021.

Little is known about whether Trump will be charged in any of those three cases, what he might be charged with, or when any potential indictments will be announced. If any further indictments do come, the legal proceedings will undoubtedly move slowly. Not only is Trump’s defense strategy sure to be aggressive and obfuscatory, but judges and prosecutors involved in the unprecedented prosecution of both a former president and a major presidential candidate will move extremely cautiously.

In short, it is unlikely Trump will be convicted of anything before the 2024 election — except, maybe, minor and confusing crimes resulting from his hush-money payments in New York. Even in that case, it seems unlikely that if he is convicted, Trump will have exhausted all of his appeals by next November.

Trump’s prosecution will certainly drain his time and resources from campaigning, and it may affect his popularity with the country’s ever-diminishing number of swing voters. On the other hand, we’re talking about a man who beat Hillary Clinton even after a tape of him essentially admitting to sexual assault was released shortly before the election. Chaos, nonsensical defiance, and a hint of criminality are so baked in to Trump’s public image that it is unclear whether his prosecution will change many minds either way.

Trump’s prosecution, especially on the three outstanding cases, is important for the continued existence of some form of democracy in the United States. The three latter cases ask a fundamental question: Can the president simply decide he doesn’t want to leave office, regardless of the outcome of his reelection?

But they are also not a shortcut for keeping him out of power, and they won’t alter the political situation that gave rise to him in the first place: the grinding stalemate between an aggressive, hateful right backed by an effectively infinite pool of resources, and a tepid liberalism that often fails to acknowledge, let alone attempt to solve, many voters’ diminishing quality of life.

In other words, the country looks much the same now as it did when Trump took hold of the GOP. With inflation and the termination of social payments like the expanded child tax credit and expanded Medicaid coverage under Biden, and small but real Republican advances among voters of color, the situation is probably somewhat less favorable for Democrats than it was in 2020. Even if Trump fumbles, someone else will pick up the ball and run with it. Ron DeSantis is licking his chops as we speak.

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. Even though Trump deserves to be prosecuted, Trumpism will only be fully defeated by a political program that provides both an alternative explanation for voters’ immiseration and hope that collective change for the better is still possible. So go ahead and throw the book at him. But give us something to vote for, too.