Former President Donald Trump finds himself once again facing indictment, this time in federal court, after an investigation into his handling of classified documents after departing the White House. The prospect of putting Mr. Trump on trial for serious crimes and sending him to prison has many Americans feeling giddy: Finally, justice might be done.
Such reactions are understandable, but news of Mr. Trump’s legal jeopardy shouldn’t blind us to the political jeopardy that now confronts the nation.
Other countries have tried, convicted and imprisoned former presidents, but the United States never has. We’ve been fortunate in this regard. Legal processes establish and maintain legitimacy by the appearance of impartiality. But when a public figure associated with one political party is prosecuted by officials associated with another, such appearances can become impossible to uphold. This is especially so when the public figure is a populist adept at exposing (and accusing opponents of concealing) base and self-interested motives behind righteous rhetoric about the rule of law.
This corrosive dynamic is even more pronounced when the public figure is not only a former official but also a potential future one. Mr. Trump is running for president against President Biden, whose attorney general, Merrick Garland, appointed the special counsel Jack Smith. That’s a scenario seemingly tailor-made to confirm and vindicate Mr. Trump’s longstanding claim that he’s the victim of a politically motivated witch hunt.
We don’t have to speculate about the immediate political consequences. Public-spirited and law-abiding Americans believe the appropriate response of voters to news that their favored candidate faces indictment is to turn on him and run the other way. But the populist politics that are Mr. Trump’s specialty operate according to an inverse logic. Before the end of March, polls of the Republican primary electorate showed him hovering in the mid-40s and leading his nearest rival, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, by about 15 points. By the end of May, Mr. Trump was in the mid-50s and leading Mr. DeSantis by roughly 30 points.
What happened at the end of March to elevate Mr. Trump’s standing? He was indicted by the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg.
Hard as it may be for some of us to believe, Mr. Trump’s indictment by the special counsel on federal charges could well boost him further, placing him in a position of even greater advantage against his rivals for the Republican nomination.
That possibility typically prompts one of two responses from Democrats: one narrowly political (not to say cynical), the other more high-minded and focused on the law and public morals.
The political response sees Mr. Trump benefiting in the G.O.P. primaries from indictment as a good thing, because the former president appears to be the most beatable alternative for Mr. Biden to face in the fall of 2024, and that will be even truer when Mr. Trump is embroiled in a federal trial on major charges and facing possible prison time. What’s good for Mr. Trump in the primaries, in other words, will be terrible for him in the general election.
This may well be true, but not necessarily. Anyone who becomes one of two major party nominees has a shot at winning the White House. That’s especially true in our era of stark partisan polarization and intense negative partisanship. That Mr. Trump would be running against an opponent with persistently low approval ratings who will be 81 years old on Election Day 2024 only makes a Biden-Trump matchup more uncertain.
The other response dismisses such concerns entirely. Let justice be done, we are told, though the heavens fall. To weigh political considerations in determining whether someone, even a former and possibly future president, should be prosecuted is to supposedly commit a grievous offense against the rule of law, because no one is above the law and the consequences of holding him or her to account shouldn’t matter.
This is a powerful argument and one seemingly vindicated in the case of Mr. Trump, who has now managed to get himself ensnared in legal trouble in multiple jurisdictions dealing with a wide range of possible crimes. At a certain point, the logic of the law applying to everyone equally demands that the process be seen through.
But that doesn’t mean we should deny the gravity of the potential consequences. Mr. Trump is not a standard-issue politician who happened to run afoul of corruption statutes. He’s a man who rose once to the presidency and seeks to return to it by mobilizing and enhancing mass suspicion of public institutions and officials. That’s why one of the first things he said after announcing the indictment on Thursday night was to proclaim it was “a DARK DAY for the United States of America.” It’s why die-hard supporters like Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio tweeted: “Sad day for America. God Bless President Trump.” It’s likely that tens of millions of our fellow citizens agree with the sentiment.
To most Americans, such a reaction to news of Mr. Trump’s indictment seems unimaginable. But it’s clearly something sincerely felt by many. Our country has a history of lionizing outlaws — folk heroes who defy authority, especially when they claim to speak for, channel and champion the grievances and resentments of ordinary people against those in positions of power and influence. From the beginning of his 2016 campaign, Mr. Trump has portrayed himself as just such a man of defiance, eager to serve as a tribune for those who feel left behind, denigrated and humiliated by members of the establishment.
That’s why the more concerted opposition Mr. Trump has faced from law enforcement, the mainstream media, Congress and other prominent people in our country and culture, the more popular he has become within his party. Efforts to rein him in — to defeat him politically and legally — have often backfired, vindicating him and his struggle in the eyes of his supporters.
There’s no reason at all to suppose the prospect of Mr. Trump’s ending up a convicted criminal would disrupt this dynamic. On the contrary, it’s far more likely to transform him into something resembling a martyr to millions of Americans — and in the process to wrest those devoted supporters free from attachment to the rule of law altogether.
How politically radical could the base of the Republican Party become over the 17 months between now and the 2024 presidential election? There’s really no way to know. We are heading into uncharted and turbulent waters.
Damon Linker, a former columnist at The Week, writes the newsletter Notes From the Middleground and is a senior fellow in the Open Society Project at the Niskanen Center.
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