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Under the Trump circus, American democracy faces a critical challenge


Former US President Donald J Trump has been charged with 34 felonies in New York. In the words of Alvin Bragg, Manhattan District Attorney, Trump is accused of making “34 false statements”, themselves “made to cover up other crimes”. Those crimes included a “conspiracy to unlawfully promote a candidacy” and “plotting with others to influence the 2016 presidential election.”

The New York indictments add to the network of cases focusing on Trump’s efforts to undermine and subvert democratic processes in the United States, which now stretch all the way back to his candidacy in 2016 and throughout the duration of his presidential administration.

The allegations shouldn’t really come as a surprise. As late as December 2022, Trump called for the “terminationof the constitution so that he could return to power. The former president has always been brutal in his disregard for the rule of law.

But it is really, historically significant for a former president to be criminally prosecuted and tried. This is a huge shift in the norms and standards that have dominated American politics for decades.

Trump’s arraignment went as expected: he arrived at court, was prosecuted and pleaded not guilty to those 34 charges. Amidst a media frenzy, he left court and flew home to safer ground in Florida. At Mar-a-Lago, he gave a standard stub speech listing his grievances and dramatically mischaracterizing the investigations into his behavior.

As the indictment and indictment against Trump has come to an end, he and his supporters have now used disturbingly familiar techniques to incite their followers. Last week, Trump threatened “death and destruction,” posted a photo of himself holding a baseball bat next to a photo of the Manhattan district attorney’s head. His son, Donald Trump Junior, posted a photo of the daughter of judge Juan Mercan. This week, in the shadow of yet another Nashville school shooting, Fox News presented Tucker Carlson warned viewers that the charge meant it was “probably not the best time to give up your AR-15.”

Read more: Trump changed America by making everything about politics, and politics all about himself

Posts and statements like these can only be read for what they are: clear attempts to foment further racist violence against anyone portrayed as an enemy.

Such calls fit a pattern of incitement that has led to violence in the past and is likely to do so again. Trump and his supporters have given no indication that they are concerned about inciting unrest; they actively and knowingly encourage it.

It is more than likely that they will continue to do so, using events such as today’s indictment to double down on conspiracy theories. And they will have plenty of opportunities: the trial in New York may drag on more than a yearand charges in other state and federal investigations now seem more likely.

Trump supporters gather outside his home at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida.
Cristobal Herrera-Ulashkevich/EPA/AAP

As I’ve written before, political violence is a feature, not a bug, of American politics. That’s partly why widespread perceptions of impending civil war are so concerning; not necessarily because civil war is likely, but because the growing certainty that it is coming is possible more permits to violence that is now regarded as inevitable anyway.

Read more: What does Trump’s impeachment mean for his political future — and the strength of American democracy?

Much of the coverage and analysis of American politics will describe the nation as “divided” or “polarized.” But polarization is not really a proper way to characterize the current state of American politics. Polarization implies a kind of equality – that parties are divided into equal but opposite extremes, willing to take the same measures to gain power; that there are “two sides” or that “both sides” are as dangerous as each other. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘horseshoe theory’ of politics.

In the modern United States, the evidence does not support this framing. One side faces more than 30 felony charges, in what is likely just the beginning of an impending wave of indictments in state and federal investigations. Collectively, those investigations paint a devastating picture of a conspiracy to undermine the world’s most important democracy. In the United States, the “other side” – which is far from immune to criticism – is at least trying to get on with the business of a democratically elected government.

The focus was instead, of course, on the Trump media circus, which is now very familiar to all of us. The black, armored SUVs that crawl the streets of New York City; “aircraft guard”; the t-shirts the farcical, gold press conferences. The mainstream press may well fall once again into the pitfalls that Trump has so carefully laid.

But it’s also much more than that, this time. How this all plays out will be another litmus test of the strength of American democracy. And it’s an essential one: Simply put, the United States cannot and should not pass this test. The consequences of failure are not only domestic. Viewed from a distance, we might be tempted to dismiss this as just more hijinks in the riveting but distant drama of American politics. But the outcome will affect us all. So we will – we must – keep looking.

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