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Convicting Donald Trump won’t bring justice

Focusing on the former president’s wrongdoing can make it seem like he alone is the problem

Noah Berlatsky
Tuesday 31 January 2023 19:15 GMT
Donald Trump
Donald Trump (AP)

During the Trump years Last Week Tonight host John Oliver would occasionally reveal the latest scandal or lie and shout “We got him!” He’d hit a big button. Confetti would fall. A banner would unfurl. Dancing tigers would appear.

The joke, of course, was that they did not have him. Even incontrovertible evidence of Trump malfeasance didn’t mean he would face consequences or even rebuke.

More, even if Trump does somehow face criminal penalties, it’s not clear what good it would do the country. Horrible as Trump is, the rot he represents reaches further than any one person. It would be satisfying to see him hoist by his ugly orange petard. But that petard is not Trump’s alone, and whether hoisted or not, it will continue to loom over us.

The Manhattan district attorney’s office is investigating Trump’s 2016 hush payments to adult film star Stormy Daniels. A special council has been appointed to investigate his possible mishandling of government documents, as well as aspects of the Justice Department’s January 6 probe. And this last month a New York jury found the Trump Organization guilty of criminal tax fraud, the first time the business has faced criminal penalties.

Those criminal penalties, though, were only $1.6m — a drop in the bucket for the Trump Organization. And what happens if Trump is found guilty of hush money payments to Stormy Daniels, and serves jail time?

Obviously, it would be satisfying to see Trump punished for his lies, his criminality, his cruelty, and his assault on democracy. But punishment won’t necessarily hold him accountable. He is not, at any point, going to apologize, or try to undo the damage he’s done. And absent his own repudiation of his ugly career, there’s certainly no way the GOP is going to repudiate him. Which means that Trumpism is going to go on, no matter what happens to Trump.

The January 6 insurrection is a bleak case in point. Trump, according to testimonies, was informed that his supporters were armed and dangerous, and nonetheless encouraged them to storm the Capitol. He even wanted to lead the march there. He expressed support for rioters who called for the hanging of his Vice President, Mike Pence. He refused to intervene to stop the insurrection despite pleas from his own staff and other high level Republicans.

Trump did face consequences for the failed Capitol insurrection. He was humiliatingly impeached for a second time. He was rebuked by then House Republican minority leader Kevin McCarthy and Republican Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell. Perhaps worst of all from Trump’s perspective, he had to actually leave the White House.

But none of that substantially addressed the damage that the coup attempt did on the country. It didn’t bring back the people killed in the insurrection, and it didn’t erode support for insurrection or authoritarian assault on democracy.

A majority of Republicans today support the insurrection, according to polls. Lawmakers who are accused of participating in organizing events leading up to January 6 are now a key part of the House majority. Election workers like Ruby Freeman continue to be barraged with harassment for simply doing their jobs in the 2020 elections. Trump launched another attack on her just weeks ago.

If Trump were in prison, he personally would be less able to target individuals, but the GOP which birthed him and which he shaped is addicted to harassment, violence, and cruelty, and that’s unlikely to change.

If Trump is unable to run for president in 2024 because he’s in prison or under indictment, the main beneficiary will be Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. DeSantis has built his reputation nationally on trying to be more Trumpy than Trump himself.

DeSantis has passed diktats to make it illegal for schools to teach about racism or discuss LGBT people in the state; most recently he banned an AP African-American studies course in the state. As part of a supposed electoral fraud crackdown, he arrested voters who had been told they were eligible to vote, in a transparent effort to intimidate Democrats and make them afraid to go to the polls. He shipped migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard under what appear to be deceptive pretences — essentially trafficking them.

The GOP is committed to bigotry and authoritarianism. They love Trump because he’s a bigoted authoritarian. But if Trump is removed from the scene, they will simply turn to someone else who hates democracy and scapegoats marginalized people.

Trying to apply the rule of law to Trump isn’t a bad thing in itself. It’s important, though, to acknowledge the limits. Focusing on Trump and Trump’s wrongdoing can make it seem like he alone is the problem, and that if we can only convict him of one of his many crimes, we’ll be in a better place.

But the criminal, lawless, cruel GOP is everywhere — in the House, in the Supreme Court, in the House of Representatives, in the 2024 Republican presidential field. Trump is as much symptom as cause. Everyone understandably wants to shout “We got him!” Indicting Trump personally for hush money payments would be satisfying in a limited way, and it’s worth pursuing as such. But defeating the fascism Trump rode and unleashed is going to be a much longer struggle.

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