What Trump’s four indictments tell us about America

What Trump’s four indictments tell us about America

At this point, Watergate looks downright quaint. 

President Richard Nixon was on the verge of impeachment and certain Senate conviction when he resigned, never to run for office again. His successor, President Gerald Ford, pardoned Mr. Nixon in an act of mercy and a bid for national healing. 

Why We Wrote This

Four criminal indictments of Donald Trump – an apparent boost to his candidacy – suggest the United States is at a pivot point.

That was nearly 50 years ago. Today, a former president under fire has a wholly different makeup, and the politics are diametrically opposite: A twice-impeached, four-times criminally indicted Donald Trump is the overwhelming favorite to win the GOP’s presidential nomination next year. And it’s entirely possible he could win the 2024 election. He and President Joe Biden are locked in a statistical dead heat, polls show.

What’s more, Mr. Trump faces felony charges, both federally and in Georgia, that go right to the essence of democracy: alleged efforts to overturn the 2020 election results. In that light, presidential historians say, the United States is at a turning point.

The charges could prompt a “resurgence of democratic norms and principles,” says Lindsay Chervinsky, a senior fellow at the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University. Or we could be seeing the precursor to a presidency unlike any in American history, including Mr. Trump’s first term.

At this point, Watergate looks downright quaint. 

Engulfed by scandal, President Richard Nixon was on the verge of impeachment and certain Senate conviction when he resigned, never to run for office again. His successor, President Gerald Ford, pardoned Mr. Nixon in an act of mercy toward a broken man and a bid for national healing. 

That was nearly 50 years ago. Today, a former president under fire has a wholly different makeup, and the politics are diametrically opposite: A twice-impeached, four-times criminally indicted Donald Trump is the overwhelming favorite to win the GOP’s presidential nomination next year. And it’s entirely possible he could win the 2024 election. He and President Joe Biden are locked in a statistical dead heat, polls show.

Why We Wrote This

Four criminal indictments of Donald Trump – an apparent boost to his candidacy – suggest the United States is at a pivot point.

What’s more, Mr. Trump faces felony charges, both federally and in Georgia, that go right to the essence of democracy: alleged efforts to overturn the 2020 election results. In that light, presidential historians say, the United States is at a turning point, with two possible outcomes. 

The charges could prompt a “resurgence of democratic norms and principles,” says Lindsay Chervinsky, a senior fellow at the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University. 

Or we could be seeing the precursor to a presidency unlike any in American history, including Mr. Trump’s first term. If he does return to office, Dr. Chervinsky says, “he’s made it very clear that he will go after his political enemies and he will not be held accountable in any way by our democratic institutions.”

The idea of a second Trump administration, for now, remains a big “if.” It’s still early in the 2024 presidential cycle, and many voters haven’t fully tuned in – even including the fact that the first GOP debate is taking place Wednesday. Mr. Trump has said he will not participate. In addition, the timeline for his criminal cases remains fluid. Though two trial dates have been set for next year – one in March, another in May – it’s possible that pretrial motions could delay all four cases until after the election.

Add to the mix, too, the Justice Department’s appointment of a special counsel for Hunter Biden, the president’s son, over tax and gun charges. Questions persist over whether President Biden had knowledge of or benefited from his son’s business dealings. The president has denied the allegations. But a House GOP investigation has kept the issue in the news, deflecting some attention from Mr. Trump’s legal woes.

Still, the Biden administration – via Justice Department special counsel Jack Smith – and the Georgia and Manhattan prosecutors have set a significant precedent with their indictments of the former president.

“In the same way Ford set one in ’74, this sets a very different one,” says Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University. 

President Gerald Ford signs a document granting former President Richard Nixon a full pardon at the White House in Washington, Sept. 8, 1974.

In particular, “the cumulative effect of all four, even the state and local indictments, will set a precedent that if you abuse your power, if you’re seen as going beyond what’s permissible, the law will come after you even after you’re president,” Dr. Zelizer says. 

Mr. Trump’s criminal indictments are: a Manhattan case over alleged hush payments to a porn star; a federal case over retention of classified documents; a federal case over alleged efforts to overturn the 2020 election; and a Georgia case over an alleged conspiracy to overturn that state’s 2020 election result. 

In all, Mr. Trump faces 91 charges, the potential for financial ruin, and the possibility that he goes to prison for the rest of his life. Mr. Trump is widely seen as wanting to regain the presidency in part so he can pardon himself if convicted – though that would not be possible in nonfederal cases, in Georgia and Manhattan. 

To many in the GOP primary electorate, most crucially Republicans who may have been inclined to back a fresh face in 2024, a sense of “piling on” appears to have engendered sympathy. Polls show Mr. Trump’s dominance of the GOP field picking up steam beginning in March, right as his first criminal indictment was about to land. 

But Mr. Trump’s resilience as a force in American politics goes well beyond renewed cries of “witch hunt.” It goes back to his debut as a presidential candidate in 2015, when he railed against Mexicans “bringing crime” into the U.S. and American jobs leaving the country. 

At the time, many political observers thought Mr. Trump would flame out, but in fact, he was remaking the Republican Party before our very eyes, with his performative skills and message of conservative populism. 

Just 2 ½ years prior, the GOP ticket was led by avatars of old-style Republicanism, dominated by fiscally conservative elites: former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. 

Suddenly, the watchwords were “America First” and “build the wall,” and working-class white voters switched parties in droves. Today, many of those same voters are among Mr. Trump’s most avid supporters. 

“His appeal never surprised me,” says Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center and not a Trump fan. “He was the person who actually was listening or somehow intuited what this segment of voters cared about.”

Politics is a market, Mr. Olsen says. “Eventually somebody figures out that there’s an underserved constituency, and they serve it – and that changes things.” 

From former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro to Hungarian President Viktor Orbán and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right-wing populism is a global phenomenon, and Mr. Trump fits right in. 

But right-wing populism, in and of itself, doesn’t present a threat to American democracy, he says. It’s in the criminalization of political opposition – and the demise of the idea of a “loyal opposition.” 

“If you cannot see the opposition as loyal,” Mr. Olsen says, “then logic drives you to suppress the opposition in ways that mean they can’t win. That’s the threat to American democracy.”

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