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Trump may face prison time. But that won’t stop him

Thanks to Trump, the US can no longer be certain of a peaceful transfer of power

Noah Berlatsky
Wednesday 02 August 2023 18:19 BST
Trump Capitol Riot
Trump Capitol Riot

Former president Donald Trump has been indicted for the third time this year. The most recent case involves his alleged efforts to retain control of the White House despite his loss in the 2020 election. Special prosecutor Jack Smith has charged Trump with conspiracy to defraud the United States, obstruction of an official proceeding, and deprivation of rights - the last referring to efforts to deprive Americans of their right to vote. If convicted, Trump could face up to 20 years in prison.

It wasn’t certain that Trump would end up facing criminal charges for his effort to overthrow the election. But it was a predictable possibility. Trump’s attacks on the electoral system and the rule of law were not canny or cautious.

Trump is a stunningly arrogant and reckless man, willing to gamble everything on a scheme that was unlikely to succeed and was quite likely to land him in legal jeopardy. But his incompetence doesn’t necessarily limit his ability to do harm, as some critics hoped when he began running for president in 2016. Instead, his obliviousness and blundering assault on the fabric of US democracy has made him a uniquely dangerous figure.

The indictment is filled with examples of Trump’s indifference not just to the rule of law, but to his own self-interest. Trump reinserted language in his January 6 speech attacking and threatening his vice-president, Mike Pence, after Pence refused to delay certifying election results. This was after his advisors had convinced him to take such language out - in part no doubt in an effort to limit possible legal liability. Trump and his co-conspirators also talked openly about using the US military against civilian protestors. You would generally try to keep such plans to yourself if you don’t want it to end up in an indictment.

The conspiracy was flagrant. And Trump’s chances of success were low. He was depending not just on Pence, who repeatedly said he wasn’t going along, but on support from the courts, which also had notably failed to back him. Ultimately he was gambling on the willingness of the military to fire on civilians. The whole endeavor was ill-advised, ill-conceived, and poorly carried out. It was the work, not of a strategic supervillain genius, but of a foolish man so drunk on his own wealth, power, and spite that he was certain he could get away with anything.

Trump did not succeed in his coup. But reckless, foolish actions by the very powerful can be exceedingly damaging even when they fail. There have been many scoundrels and clowns who have attained the presidency. But only Trump has combined amorality with such utter disregard for his own personal safety. LIke an angry, pea-brained orange ungulate, he threw himself this way and that against the nation’s institutions, willing to bleed out as long as he could break a bunch of stuff while doing so.

And break a bunch of stuff he did. Thanks to his efforts, the Republican party base now believes that Democrats regularly and illegitimately steal any elections they win; some 60 percent of the GOP thinks Biden lost in 2020. That’s a terrifying reservoir of antidemocratic sentiment, which can be wielded by Trump or any other would-be dictator.

Trump has also normalized and encouraged violent vigilante assaults on our democracy. A Trump supporter with firearms went searching for former president Barak Obama last month after Trump posted what he said was the former president’s address on social media.

More, Trump supporters now regularly target election and poll workers for death threats and harassment. In North Carolina, a critical swing state, for example, more than a quarter of officials say they have personally experienced threats. The result has been high turnover and endemic fear. Because of fascist threats and organized fascist terror campaigns, citizens are now afraid to participate in their own democracy.

Nor is Trump done. He is currently the front-runner for the 2024 Republican nomination, and his allies are reshaping nomination contests to kneecap his rivals. In early general election polls, he and Democratic president Joe Biden are running almost dead even.

Given Trump’s past refusal to accept election losses, and given the way he has primed his followers for electoral violence, there is every possibility of serious violence before, during, or following the 2024 contest. Thanks to Trump, the US can no longer be certain of a peaceful transfer of power.

Trump is in many ways a creature of the GOP. Republicans for years have tried to undermine faith in elections by falsely claiming widespread fraud. And Republicans for years have used escalating and reckless violent imagery and rhetoric. But Trump has been uniquely oblivious not just to truth and morality, but to legal consequences. As a result he’s placed himself in jeopardy—and the country as well.

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