These are surreal times in the US. Even as the political system is gearing up for next year’s Presidential elections, the legal drama being played out in various courtrooms is shaping the political dynamic more potently than political debates. In fact, politics has been subsumed by the legal issues surrounding key political actors, most importantly, former US President Donald Trump. He will be turning himself in to police in the state of Georgia, where he is likely to be booked at the Fulton County Jail in Atlanta before being arraigned at the courthouse. Along with 18 others, Trump was indicted earlier this week for alleged attempts to overturn his 2020 election loss in the state.
While this is only the latest one, Trump has been criminally indicted in three other cases, including in a federal investigation into efforts to overturn the result of the 2020 presidential election, his alleged mishandling of classified material after he left the White House, and paying hush-money to the adult film star Stormy Daniels before the 2016 election. In any other time and for any other politician, any of this would have been the end of the political road. But such are vagaries of American politics today that Trump seems to using these as badges of honour. In his usual acerbic style, Trump has decided to hold a “major news conference” next week to present an “irrefutable report” on voter fraud from three years ago.
And this is not the only drama in town. US President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden’s shenanigans in the courtroom have not been any less riveting. He has been under federal investigation since 2019 and recently, after a plea deal on tax and gun charges against him collapsed, a special counsel was appointed by the Justice Department to look into his case, with a jury trial looking imminent. Where President Biden has predictably stood by his son, the Republicans have gone after Hunter Biden, focusing on his business interests in China and Ukraine. In fact, only after it emerged that then President Trump had pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Hunter’s dealings with the Ukrainian natural gas company, Burisma Holdings (where Hunter served on the board) did the entire process of Trump’s first impeachment start in 2019 for soliciting foreign interference in the 2020 presidential election.
All the sleaze, corruption and political brinkmanship evident in these episodes is usually associated with Third world countries with weak institutions and personalized politics. Washington is usually at the forefront of advising such nations on how to conduct their domestic affairs. But today the shoe is in the other foot. The US looks like a pale replica of its glorious past as a democracy. It is unable to set its own house in order and its credibility across the world is being challenged with autocracies like China and Russia trying to make a case for the superiority of their own models of political governance. It is laughable, but that’s what it has come down to in the age of Trump and Hunter Biden.
Trump continues to see his support rise among grassroots Republicans. The more indictments he receives, the stronger the resolve of his supporters to send him back to the White House. There is an alternative reality that shapes the worldview of Trump supporters where their own nation’s institutions are seen are corrupt and partial. Personalities tower over institutions, something that America’s founding fathers tried so hard to avoid in the way they framed the constitution.
The Republican nomination process has already begun and monthly debates among the party’s nominees are starting next week. Trump remains far ahead of everyone else with his campaign donations overflowing and his supporters being the loudest. As his trials begin later this year, he will have to manage his court appearances with his campaign for the Republican nomination. Trump’s supporters believe in his assessment that the legal cases against him are aimed at preventing him from another White House run. Their strong conviction in this argument is reflective of how deep goes the social and political polarization in the US. So deep that huge constituencies are willing to bet on the worst intentions of others. Due to the support for Trump in the Republican primaries, instead of taking on the ex-President, his Republican opponents have been forced to criticize the weaponisation of the American legal process.
This breakdown of the social order in the US is now firmly embedded in its politics. Trump is just one manifestation of that reality. His campaign may or may not succeed but the challenges for American democracy will continue. For many of his supporters, the question is whether they continue to support Trump politically, knowing well that Biden had defeated him last time in swing states. The primary campaign is different from the national one and most Republican voters will have to take it into account as well.
But Trump knows how to play to the gallery. Courtrooms will be his stage. The more media time he gets, the better it is for him to rally his base. His Republican opponents remain unimpressive so far, failing to make a mark. Trump’s actions, in the court and outside, will continue to dominate the election cycle, helping him in easily entering the Presidential contest. What this does to American democracy is, of course, another matter.
Author: Harsh V. Pant is a Professor of International Relations at King’s College London.