Harsh V. Pant
The last few days have been dramatic in the US polity with former President Donald Trump becoming the first US president in history to face a criminal trial after he was charged with 34 counts of falsifying business records in a Manhattan court in New York.
Though there was nothing the world did not know before in the case involving hush money paid to porn star Stormy Daniels before the 2016 presidential election, the spectacle of a former “leader of the free world” facing charges of orchestrating “a scheme with others to influence the 2016 presidential election by identifying and purchasing negative information about him to suppress its publication and benefit the defendant’s electoral prospects” stands testimony to the persistent decay in American politics over the last few years.
In the court, Trump was silent but outside, he thundered that the “fake case” was a Democratic Party conspiracy to influence next year’s presidential election, in which he is the Republican front runner so far, and suggested that “the only crime that I have committed is to fearlessly defend our nation from those who seek to destroy it.” He also targeted his successor Joe Biden saying that the “country is going to hell” and “the world is laughing at us.”
Even as Trump was being arraigned inside the courthouse, his supporters and detractors were outside, trading barbs and waving signs, laying bare the faultlines in American polity and society in the full glare of the world’s media.
This trial is expected to begin in January 2024, if the case is not dismissed before by the court, and this would mean Trump’s trial could be at the very centre of primary season when the two parties select their respective nominees. The legal battle would not only take away from Trump’s ability to fight with full vigour but it would also be the harbinger of chaos for the Republicans, something that has now become Trump’s trademark. And of course, this is not all.
Three other investigations have Trump at their centre – from the attack on the Capitol and efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election results to his handling of classified information. It’s a minefield out there for Trump. He knows it and the stridency of his rhetoric has already started betraying a sense of nervousness.
But he has managed to unite the Republicans in their condemnation of the indictment and support for him. The Republican Party has been quick to frame criminal charges against Trump as political vendetta by the Democrats. Even those who are likely to challenge him for the Republican nomination, like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, have been strongly critical of the investigation for its “partisan nature”.
Trump and his ideas continue to resonate strongly with the Republican base and the road to the Presidential nomination cannot be traversed by being on the wrong side of Trump. The full impact of Trump’s indictment on grassroots Republicans will only be seen over the next few months but supporting Trump today is a poisoned chalice for every Republican, especially the ambitious ones. DeSantis has been presenting himself as a Republican who can carry forward Trumpism without the associated chaos. But for now, he has no option but to rally around Trump.
And this is what Trump is hoping would allow him to, once again, frame the narrative for the Presidential elections. Right after his court appearance, he got to the task of rallying his supporters by saying that “radical left” prosecutors across the country were out to get him “at any cost.” Arguing that the US is a nation in decline, he underlined that “these radical left lunatics want to interfere with our elections by using law enforcement” and that his supporters “can’t let that happen.” Because of all the attention, he has been receiving, he has already been able to raise large funds for his political campaign.
For the Democrats, this is a tricky terrain. However much they may want to gloat, they have to hold their horses as they have seen Trump’s political mastery in using such displays to his advantage in the past. Mum’s the word for the Democratic Party, including President Joe Biden. Yet there remains a concern that a legal approach to this problem is unlikely to help the Democrats at a time when they face a tough presidential election.
Joe Biden’s popularity remains a challenge with Biden not recording a positive net approval rating since August 2021, resulting in intense speculation about the possibility of him seeking a second term. He is confronting a resolute Republican majority in the House that also is keen to launch its own investigations into issues as wide-ranging as Hunter Biden’s businesses, the Afghanistan withdrawal and the Covid-19 response.
This political polarization is a reflection of the contrasting views in American society about Trump and his prosecution. While for some this might be a moment where even the most powerful have to be accountable to the law of the land, for others this is needless hounding of a political opponent by a Democrat District Attorney so as to make Trump’s road to the White House as difficult as possible. While 60 per cent of Americans approve of Trump’s indictment, around 52 per cent also believe that this was a political move.
Trump, in all likelihood, will use his legal battles ahead as a spectacle to continue to be in the spotlight. He has challenged conventional wisdom in the past and it is too soon to predict what his present challenges will bring for him. But the world will once again be riveted by a drama in which the legal and the political will collide in a high-stakes saga.
The spotlight will also be on American polity and its institutional fabric. For a nation that is often quick to pronounce judgements on other democracies, the shoe is on the other foot. America’s first reality-show president is hell-bent on making American democracy a reality show. It remains to be seen if after the theater ends, the US will still have the resilience to continue to be a “City upon a Hill.”
The article was first published on NDTV as Opinion: The Riveting Trump Reality Show, Starring American Democracy on April 07, 2023.
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