Donald Trump and America’s democratic reputation

Because of Donald Trump, U.S. democracy has become an object of derision around the world.

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SOURCEForeign Policy in Focus

Originally published in Hankyoreh.

Donald Trump is currently facing 34 charges of tax and accounting fraud in a New York trial. It is the first time that an American president has faced criminal charges. The United States now joins a number of democratic countries where the chief executive has been put on trial. In some of these countries—South Korea, Peru, Malaysia, Brazil—the leader has ended up in prison.

The latest charges against Trump might seem rather trivial. Most of the headlines, after all, have focused on the money that Trump paid to a porn star to keep her quiet about the brief affair that they had.

But the focus of the inquiry is both more mundane and potentially more damaging for Trump. It all comes down to how Trump and his colleagues accounted for the various payments made to the porn star and others to keep them quiet. The Manhattan District Attorney is arguing that a felony occurred when the Trump campaign attempted to claim those expenses as a campaign expenditure.

Trump clearly made the payments. It seems as though he committed fraud in accounting for these expenses. Whether this fraud rises to the level of a felony—by breaking federal campaign finance laws—remains to be seen in the trial. But we’re going to have to wait a long time for that trial. The next in-person hearing won’t happen until December 4.

In the meantime, Trump may soon face charges in another state. A county in Georgia may issue an indictment against Trump for trying to persuade officials in the state to overturn the 2020 election results.

Then there are the charges that Trump faces at a federal level.

Back in December, the January 6 select committee accused the former president of four crimes, which included aiding the mob that eventually ransacked Congress, obstructing the joint session of Congress on January 6, and conspiring to defraud the United States. It is up to the Justice Department to prosecute those crimes along with another inquiry into whether Trump obstructed justice and made false statements regarding classified documents that he retained after leaving office.

In both cases, a special prosecutor is overseeing the inquiry, which also includes investigations into wire fraud and money laundering connected to Trump’s efforts to raise funds after the 2020 election to pursue his demonstrably false claims that the election was stolen.

For a political figure who has lied, cheated, and bullied his way to power, it would be a fitting end to Trump’s career if he were jailed because of his lies and malfeasance. It would also be poetic justice given that Trump supporters propelled their candidate into office by falsely accusing his opponent, Hillary Clinton, of breaking the law and chanting “Lock her up!” at rallies back in 2016.

But although these investigations are serious, Trump’s political career is not over yet.

After all, he remains the leading contender for the Republican Party nomination for the 2024 presidential election. Last month, Trump led his closest rival, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, by 8 points. Now, after the indictment in New York, Trump leads by more than 25 points.

The vast majority of Republican Party faithful (79 percent) consider themselves part of Trump’s MAGA—Make America Great Again—movement. That’s no surprise. Many Republicans who oppose Trump have simply left the party. But that doesn’t mean that the party is in trouble. Over a million voters switched to the Republican Party in the run-up to the mid-term elections last November, which helped the Republicans take over the House of Representatives. But that crossover didn’t necessarily help Trump-endorsed candidates, many of whom lost in the races that were close.

Trump’s odds have even been improving in a head-to-head contest with Joe Biden for the presidency. Public opinion has recently been trending upward, with Trump  coming out on top by 2 percent in a YouGov/Economist poll.

Of course, it’s still early, and Trump faces a number of investigations that might disqualify him from the race or even put him in prison.

The United States once prided itself on having a stable democracy with free and fair elections. It looked down at countries that put their presidents and prime ministers on trial. And, of course, the United States has spent billions of dollars annually to promote American-style democracy around the world.

That era is over. U.S. democracy has always been flawed in some respect, whether because of limited franchise, the overwhelming influence of money, or the power of arcane institutions like the Electoral College. But now, because of Donald Trump, U.S. democracy has become an object of derision around the world.

In some countries, the jailing of the executive has been politically motivated. For instance, the imprisonment of former Brazilian leader Luis Ignacio Lula da Silva, or Lula, was annulled by the Brazilian Supreme Court. He subsequently won reelection in presidential elections last year. In other cases, for instance the jailing of Park Geun-hye for corruption, the process was considerably more impartial.

Trump and his supporters argue that the charges against him are also politically motivated. He stands accused of some obvious crimes. Like anyone accused of such crimes, he will have his day in court before a jury of his peers. And, as American pundits like to say, no one is above the law (though, in reality, the rich and powerful often are).

In a broader sense, however, the charges are indeed politically motivated. Donald Trump sinned against democracy, and democratic institutions are now fighting back. He stands accused not just of corruption or using political power for his own personal gain. In Georgia and at the federal level, the indictments, if they come, will concern his attempts to overthrow the political system.

In other words, Donald Trump is not just a threat to a particular political party, as many Democrats and even quite a few Republicans would argue. He is a threat to politics as a whole. If the United States still has any pretense of being a democracy, it must answer this threat by ending his political career once and for all by holding him accountable for his actions.

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