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How the impeachment of Donald Trump is a ‘strange and different’ event for America, say political scientists


The indictment of a former president of the United States, Donald Trump, is real-time history. The conversation asked political scientists James D. Long And Victor Menaldoboth at the University of Washington, to help readers understand the significance of this moment in the US. The two scholars have written about the lessons other democracies can teach the US about prosecuting a president and provide the context for Trump’s arraignment in a Manhattan courthouse.

What was the first thing you thought when you heard the grand jury voted to indict Trump?

James Long: The first thought I had was about the grand jury, and how much work it is to be on a grand jury. It will be a part time job. And how wonderful that we live in a country where such things are decided that way. Twenty-three people performed this service that is so crucial to the functioning of our country and our democracy. They’re not just doing it for Donald Trump’s cause, but for many kinds of cases. There was something very touching about it.

The strength of our justice system is what I am proud of. What makes me sad is that we are in this situation. If you think about all the battles that have been fought for over 200 years to make our democracy better, stronger and more inclusive, we are now at a point where someone has threatened to pursue their own interests. That is just sad for a country to have to experience. I’m glad we’re going through it under the rule of law, instead of fighting it out as a political cause in the street or fighting a war or something else disastrous, as other countries have done.

Victor Menaldo: I was thinking of cases that are similar, analogs in other parts of the world. I thought of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel. Evo Morales in Bolivia came to mind. a bunch of Brazilian ex-presidents came to mind – in fact the past four – who have gone through various stages of prosecution or impeachment, or some have been arrested, some have spent time in prison.

I also thought about politics and how Trump could continue down this path: setting people on fire and throwing fireballs and muddying the water. How far will he go, and what purposes will that serve – perhaps intimidating judges, witnesses and juries and the like – in terms of strengthening his campaign?

Former President Donald Trump after speaking at a rally at the Waco Regional Airport on March 25, 2023 in Waco, Texas.
Brandon Bell/Getty Images

What can this indictment do to America?

James Long: My generation survived Impeachment of President Bill Clinton. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve seen other things that other presidents got away with. So I probably thought the charge wouldn’t have been that surprising.

Still, the charge shocks me now. It’s also just shocking in the sense that Trump has spent his entire life in lawsuits and gotten away with things or not, but has never been held personally liable in a criminal case — even though he still has the presumption of innocence. . It was very shocking to me to think that this has finally happened – like this is really strange and different.

Victor Menaldo: I tend to think of the US as less exceptional these days, at least politically, because of Trump. The differences investigations of Trump, and now the indictment, are less surprising than ever. Americans had expected a shoe to eventually drop, and this charge was the shoe, or one of the first shoes. It had to happen, because Trump has been pushing the envelope for so long.

i co-authored a book in 2018 of Michael Albertus. Our fundamental premise was that the fear of persecution drives much of politics, in all countries and over time. It is fundamental whether you will have a democracy or whether democracy will weaken.

So if you fear persecution, if you are a dictator, you could avoid democracy at all costs. If you were really mean, you’d make sure that democracy doesn’t happen or that it happens on your terms, because if it happens on someone else’s terms, you’ll end up in jail. You’re going to try to create a system where the judiciary is obligated to you so you don’t get into trouble.

My other thought is, thank goodness this happened when Trump was no longer in power. You can’t control the machinery of government if you’re out of power. You don’t control the Justice Department. Your power is politically weak, even though Trump is the alleged one leader of the Republican Party And leader in the GOP for the 2024 nomination. But he lacks the cachet he once had and he lacks the powers he would otherwise use to deal a lot of damage. That gives me optimism that this persecution may not be as existential to our system as it would have been, say, when he was still in power.

A man in a white T-shirt sets up a metal barricade in front of a building.
New York Police Department employees set up barricades outside the Manhattan District Attorney’s offices in New York City on April 1, 2023.
Kena Betancur/Getty Images

Are the arrest and booking symbolically important in the big story of Trump and America?

James Lang: Certainly. I think that’s going to be the image that goes next to his obituary — a photo of a former president.

I believe Trump’s political stock has dwindled every day since he left office. I think he thinks this prosecution will help him, and maybe in the short term. I think he’s going to try to use that image, much like Jesus on the cross, to say, essentially, “Here, I’m being tortured by a Democratic prosecutor in a Democratic state under a grand jury probably made up of citizens who are all the democrats out to get me, and a judge to get me!

That mug shot may be an image he’s going to exploit, but ultimately I think it’s going to embarrass him. I don’t think moderate Republicans will vote for someone to be prosecuted. I think they are going shopping. The first primary school is just under a year away. It takes a long time for Republicans to rally behind another candidate politically.

Victor Menaldo: Trump’s best move, according to his theory of the worldis to be a martyr and use the symbolism of a former president being indicted as a weapon and claim that it is completely politicized.

I would say that anyone who cares about the rule of law in general, Democrats and the people in these legal proceedings in particular, should be very careful not to reinforce that gun narrative there. I think the prosecutors will probably do unconventional things and treat Trump differently than your typical defendant. They reduce the chance of a police photo being taken that will go viral, they don’t captivate him, they don’t get the perpetrator’s way. They will treat him with respect and dignity.

How they handle his arraignment becomes a fascinating game to observe – how to lower the profile of the moment. Their best strategy would be to play it down and try to uphold the dignity of the office or former office. Trump’s best move is to say that this prosecution is a weaponization of the justice system, milking the idea that he is being prosecuted for all it’s worth and some of that will probably stick with his core supporters.

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