April 16, 2024

Sue Ogrocki/AP

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Donald Trump has been a one-man stress test for the American political system. The framers did not envision such a dishonest, narcissistic scoundrel winning the highest office of the land. And the system of laws, rules, and norms that began with the Constitution and that has evolved in the past two centuries was not formulated to deal with a demagogue with a cult-like following who would baldly lie about anything and everything, who would aid and abet a foreign attack on the nation, who would flaunt numerous and brazen conflicts of interest, and who would try to blow up the nation’s constitutional order and incite violence to remain in power. But—so far—the nation appears to have survived the authoritarian threat Trump poses. Yet with his historic indictment in New York City on charges related to the $130,000 hush-money payment made to porn star Stormy Daniels before the 2016 election to prevent her from airing the story of her alleged sexual romp with Trump, the failed casino owner who became president is once again about to stress test the nation.

Never has the US judicial system contended with the criminal prosecution of a former president (who is also the leading GOP 2024 aspirant). That almost happened with Richard Nixon. But his handpicked successor, President Gerald Ford, granted the Watergate co-conspirator a pardon. Ford insisted that would allow the country to move on. But in retrospect, his pardon did the United States a disservice by not allowing the nation to establish a precedent for managing the sensitive matter of presidential criminality.

So after years of repeated brushes with the law and other sordid actions—from allegedly violating housing law to hobnobbing with mobsters to possibly committing perjury to mounting  assorted tax  dodges to obstructing justice to plotting multiple schemes for overturning an election—Trump is finally being prosecuted for a caper that involved paying off and silencing an adult film director and star. As did the January 6 insurrectionist riot, this will place tremendous pressure on American politics.

It took a nanosecond for Trump and his tribe to decry the indictment in apocalyptic terms, denouncing it as a political hit-job cooked up to deny him the presidency once more and exclaiming this was a declaration of war from the left. They went straight to Defcon-1. Trump led the way with a social media post that was both farcical and threatening. Noting that “Thugs and Radical Left Monsters” had just “indicated” him (yes, he misspelled “indicted), Trump called this an “ATTACK ON OUR COUNTRY THE LIKES OF WHICH HAS NEVER BEEN SEEN.” The United States, he huffed, “IS NOW A THIRD WORLD NATION, A NATION IN SERIOUS DECLINE.” Others chimed in. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), the QAnonish pal of white nationalists, issued a tweet that threatened retribution: “Our side chants ‘lock her up’ and their side is going to get a mug shot based on a witch hunt. It’s time to change that. Gloves are off.” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin repeated the right’s favorite talking point of the moment, claiming the indictment was the “weaponization” of the legal system. (They asserted this before anyone had seen the particulars of the indictment.)

Eric Trump exclaimed the indictment was “third world prosecutorial misconduct. It is the opportunistic targeting of a political opponent in a campaign year.” And Donald Trump Jr. went further: “This is like communist-level shit. This is stuff that would make Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot—would make them blush. It’s so flagrant. It’s so crazed.” Yes, he was comparing Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg to tyrants who each killed millions of people. Right-wing loudmouth Dan Bongino declared, “We’re in a police state.” Other Trumpists assailed the indictment as a sign the United States had become a “banana republic.”

Get a grip, fellas. Police states tend not to use grand juries. The autocrats in charge just arrest who they want to lock up. And in banana republics, there is no accountability when elites break the laws. In fact, as was widely noted on Indictment Day, many established democracies have investigated and/or prosecuted past or present leaders suspected of criminal activity. See Israel and Benjamin Netanyahu, France and Nicolas Sarkozy, Italy and Silvio Berlusconi. That has not turned those nations into police states or killing fields. But there is method to the Trumpian madness. With other and perhaps more serious indictments possibly ahead for Trump—he could be indicted for stealing classified and sensitive White House documents, for pressuring Georgia officials to change the 2020 vote tally, for plotting to overturn the 2020 election, and for inciting the January 6 raid on the Capitol—he and his henchmen have a strong interest in stirring up as much tumult and discord over Bragg’s case, in the hope this might dissuade other prosecutors from indicting Trump.

In the aftermath of the indictment, Democrats, liberals, independents, and others who believe in the rule of law are in an asymmetrical battle with the Trump right. Trump and his minions will hurl heated rhetoric and inflame the conflict. Trump has always welcomed chaos, believing he can harness it for his advantage. Before the indictment, he stated his arrest could prompt violence—coming close to encouraging January 6-like action. He assailed Bragg, a Black man, as an “animal,” and, employing an antisemitic trope, he depicted Bragg as the puppet of Jewish billionaire George Soros (a line of attack loudly echoed by Trump’s defenders.) Consequently, it falls to non-Trump America to counsel calm and respect for the rule of law and to remind all that anyone accused, even Trump, is due the presumption of innocence.

That may not be easy to do in the face of the Trumpian onslaught. Trump’s lackeys are committed to weaponizing this indictment to provoke more tribalism and spark a cataclysmic political clash. They are calling for total political warfare. Trump Jr. proclaimed, “the fascist left won’t stop with Trump. They’re power-hungry & will do anything to crush their political opponents.” And following the typical demagogue’s playbook, Trump and his defenders seek to rile up the right-wing base by casting this indictment as a direct attack on Trump’s supporters. One pro-Trump conservative website put it this way: “Trump has been indicted and YOU’RE next.”

To make this point, Junior posted this old tweet from Trump:

TrumpWorld wants to flip the switch. The issue, for its denizens, is not whether he was a sleazebag who cheated with Stormy Daniels and then tried to shut her up with a cash payment and falsified records to cover up his misconduct. Rather, they want to use this indictment to gin up fear and paranoia they can exploit for political gain and, perhaps, for personal profit. (Within hours of the indictment, Trump, Kevin McCarthy, and a variety of GOP and conservative outfits sent out fundraising emails denouncing Bragg and the radical left. ) Trump and his forces will now engage in an all-out blitz against the legal system and do all they can to intensify political polarization and division within a polarized and divided nation. He wants the system to pay a price for daring to hold him accountable. This furor will shape the 2024 election and the ongoing political fights on Capitol Hill and across the election. The indictment of Donald Trump marks the start of what will be an ugly and dangerous chapter in the ongoing case of Trump vs. America.