What’s at stake in the Trump indictments

As this Summer of Trump Indictments nears an end, the nation enters uncharted territory: Not only is a former president facing criminal sanctions, albeit a full two years after he committed the offenses; that same former president is a candidate to reclaim his former office.

The year ahead is certain to be a boon for the news industry, with headline after headline keeping news junkies on alert for the next announcement on Trump’s legal jeopardy. Pundits have already analyzed Trump’s upcoming trials from every angle, mostly demonstrating that they have no better idea what’s going to happen than anyone else. 

A few things, however, are clear. This latest saga of the Trump story will play out simultaneously on two stages: the judicial and the political. One stage will influence the other but they will operate in separate theaters. 

Former President Donald Trump and 18 of his alleged co-conspirators were booked in Fulton County in Atlanta.
The 19 alleged conspirators charged in connection with efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election results in Georgia. Headshots taken following arrest in the Fulton County Jail in Atlanta, Georgia.

On the judicial side, Trump emerges as a sort of 21st-century Al Capone of politics, a ruthless gangster eager to subvert American democracy to retain power. On the political side, a substantial number of Republican voters are willing to return Trump to office – and his legal peril only inflames his base and binds it more closely to him. 

Also certain is that none of the current four criminal cases will be resolved before the November 2024 election. Trump may well be convicted in one or more trials, but if so he will surely appeal. Trump’s previous encounters with the justice system – over his lifetime he has been party to over 4,000 civil or criminal cases, by one count – show that his strategy is to drag out proceedings as long as possible. He believes that when it comes to legal affairs time is always on his side. And that is doubly true for the current indictments, for if he is elected president he will have leverage to quash the prosecutions, at least the federal ones.

The four pending trials – the New York hush-money case, the separate federal cases on retaining classified documents and trying to overturn the election, and the election-interference indictment in Georgia – might not be the end of the story. Georgia was only one of several states where Trump and his cronies tried to reverse the results of a free election, and others might follow the Georgia example – there is speculation, for example, that Arizona could be next.  

So the Trump legal saga will play on for an extended time. If the worst happens and he returns to the White House, he will install a compliant attorney general who will dismiss the federal prosecutions. Proceedings in Georgia and any other states that might follow suit could be another matter; Trump will claim states can’t prosecute a sitting president, and if the states disagree that issue will have its own day in court. That is one reason why the Georgia indictment is important: It asserts that states have control over their elections and it defies interference from the federal government, whether Trump’s past intervention or his future meddling from the White House.

Court proceedings are largely insulated from public pressure, and the public lacks levers to influence them. The political track is where the public has the central role. Here is where those who value democracy must act, and that includes everyone from the democratic left to the small but not silent remnant of Republicans and conservatives who have declared that Trump must not become president again. 

If Trump is elected his first term will have been just a warmup. He has already declared that he intends to dismantle much of the nonpartisan civil service and concentrate control in the hands of his appointed ideologues. He could subvert our imperfect democracy into a strongman style of government, al la Russia, that could long outlive him. 

On January 6, fascist supporters of Donald Trump led an invasion of the Capitol in an attempted coup. Source: Brett Davis, via Flickr.

The far right is drooling over the opportunities afforded by such an unhinged President: to roll back LGBTQ+ rights, enact a nationwide ban on abortion, escalate the war on migrants, dismantle the social safety net, and more. And if you think there is hope of avoiding climate catastrophe – even after the devastating wildfires in Canada and Hawaii, the deadly hot summer that we’re now experiencing, the increasingly destructive hurricanes, and other environmental disasters too numerous to mention – a second Trump presidency will kill it. He will shut down all climate initiatives and put oil, gas and coal exploration on steroids to enthrall the wealthy and capital-rich to his regime.   

No advance on the Left’s agenda will be possible if Trump returns to the White House. Enacting universal health care, ending violent policing, saving the climate, you name it; these will be off the table. Left politics will become a matter of survival. We can cheer the belated rise of the criminal-justice system against Trump’s offenses, but it is the political arena where the critical battle will first take place – and the goal must be to defeat Trump. 

This doesn’t mean that the Left must swallow Biden-style centrism. The election presents an opportunity to build the Left by making it a cohesive force in defeating Trump and building an activist base for 2025 and beyond. Once Trump is defeated, there will be space to pursue a progressive agenda at all levels of government and work for the election of Left activists to local, state and federal offices. If we build the bench now, it may even put the presidency on the table for 2028.

But for now, allies across the political spectrum are needed. It is time for all defenders of democracy of whatever political stripe to come together and prevent another Trump presidency.

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