Even if you never “went back to brunch” after Joe Biden became president, you could be forgiven for putting Donald Trump’s antics at the end of his term in the back of your mind. Trump’s claims about election fraud and his attempts to stay in power may have been dangerous in a certain light, but they were also ridiculous on their face, and of course they ultimately failed.
After all, much bigger problems have arisen in the interim — like how much of the country’s meager social safety net Biden is willing to give away in negotiations over the debt ceiling, or whether he would destroy the financial stability tens of millions of student debtors were able to achieve during the loan payment pause.
But two important events have thrust Trump back into the limelight. Together with a right-wing Supreme Court willing to use the flimsiest rationales to justify their desired policy outcomes, they threaten to push America’s already weak democracy to the breaking point.
The first is special counsel Jack Smith’s recent indictments of Trump on charges related to his alleged attempts to remain in power following his loss to Joe Biden. Trump now faces three separate criminal cases, and a fourth is likely coming soon. Smith’s charges are the most serious, however, along with the still-forthcoming charges in Georgia, which have to do with alleged attempts at voter fraud. On Thursday, Trump pleaded not guilty.
Smith’s indictment includes allegations that Trump tried to reverse the results of the 2020 election and, when that failed, to appoint “fake” electors who would vote for him in the Electoral College even though Biden carried their states. Smith also charged Trump with illegally exploiting the January 6 Capitol riot to delay the official certification of the election.
The charges themselves don’t come as a big surprise. They are based largely (though not entirely) on facts already publicly established by the congressional investigations into the Capitol attacks. But they are still a significant turning point. No US president has ever been charged with a crime related to the refusal to cede power after an election. In fact, though it is commonplace for leaders and former leaders to be prosecuted in most democracies, this is the first time a former US president has been criminally charged at all.
The fact that the US judicial system is not used to holding the political elite accountable is complicated by the fact that Donald Trump is by far the most popular politician on the American right, and even more so by the extent to which the judiciary has become increasingly reactionary over the past several decades.
The day before Smith announced his indictment, the New York Times published a poll of Republican voters. Trump doesn’t just have the support of a majority of those polled; he leads runner-up Ron DeSantis by nearly 40 percentage points. Further, only 9 percent of even “soft” Trump supporters think the reason he is being indicted in multiple jurisdictions is because he might have committed a crime. Among “strong” Trump supporters, zero thought Trump might have committed a crime — that is, none of the respondents at all, out of more than three hundred who pollsters placed in the category.
That means that, even estimating conservatively, tens of millions of Americans think the charges against Trump are politically rather than legally motivated, regardless of the actual legal merits of the cases against him. In fact, the prosecutions seem to be increasing many people’s support for Trump, rather than decreasing it. Trump himself has encouraged these suspicions, saying the charges against him were “persecution of a political opponent.”
So we’re facing a weak culture of accountability, a billionaire defendant who commands the loyalty of millions of voters who think he is being persecuted, and a conservative movement that demonstrated repeatedly during Trump’s tenure that it is enthusiastic about using street violence, state violence, fraud, and political repression to further its aims. Even the best-case scenario — Trump facing punishment for trying to enact a coup — will mean a large and dangerous movement seeing its leader “martyred,” exactly the way he has been priming his followers to believe “the swamp” would come after him for years.
Who knows what their response will be? Justified as the charges might be, there is really no outcome here that will strengthen American democracy.
But there’s more. Given his extreme pugnacity and the unique status of the case, it seems very likely Trump will fight one or more of his cases all the way to the Supreme Court. Always a political institution, the court has dropped even the barest pretense of judicial impartiality since Biden took office, with conservative justices nakedly rationalizing their desired policy outcomes on the flimsiest legal arguments.
The current court majority is nothing but hard-right activists in robes with literally no accountability to anyone. (And the spouse of one justice, Ginny Thomas, was herself deeply involved in lobbying various Republicans to falsely overturn 2020 presidential election results.) Is it possible to imagine any outcome other than the Supreme Court absolving Trump?
The slow, boring grind of Biden laboriously undoing the temporary and weak social-safety measures enacted during the COVID crisis and restoring the neoliberal status quo ante could very soon and very quickly transform into a period of political chaos, with public faith in the country’s institutions plummeting even further quite rapidly. The best hope for stopping Trump’s GOP probably lies in mobilizing a broad coalition — including increasingly disaffected working-class voters — around a populist program that speaks to people’s economic needs while also fighting to defend and deepen democracy. It will be up to the Left to champion this program against a Democratic establishment that is opposed to truly transformative change and at best ambivalent about empowering the labor movement.
What happens next is not yet clear, but one thing is for sure. If the Left doesn’t seize the moment, the Right certainly will.