Donald Trump’s indictment on weak document-falsification charges marks the crossing of a dangerous Rubicon in American politics.
The former president’s April 4 arrest caps off six years of investigations by his political opponents: Trump underwent two impeachments along partisan lines, the FBI investigated him based on opposition research former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign funded, and New York Attorney General Letitia James campaigned on targeting him with the force of law.
However, the Trump indictment establishes a unique precedent that even the various investigations into his conduct could not muster. American politics is headed toward a policy of mutually assured destruction.
Self-interested political activists and “leaders” are solely focused on accumulating power and silencing their political opponents, not underlying principles. That cynical approach undercuts American civil and political discourse and will land us in a world where the norm is political leaders facing trumped-up charges upon threatening the ruling regime.
The Old Order: Cold Political Warfare
As Americans, we are accustomed to politics being a contest for power. Typically, this encompasses each side hurling insults, accusations, and even investigations against its opponents. I characterize all this as “cold political warfare.”
The smearing of political opponents as “criminal,” “corrupt,” or “crooked” is a tactic as old as time. The public’s duty is to sort out the validity of these allegations at the ballot box. Most Americans understand those accusations of criminality to be simply rhetorical, as they were in the case of Clinton’s email scandal.
Like no one else, Trump understands that politics is a game of verbal sludge. He ran in 2016 on the chant of “lock her up” (referencing Clinton), quipping that she would be imprisoned if he was president. Yet when Trump defeated Clinton and moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, he never sicced his Department of Justice on her. And not one Republican district attorney or state attorney general pursued her alleged crimes.
Cold political warfare consisted of only smack talk, even when leaders or other public figures clearly committed the alleged crime—see James Clapper and Bill Clinton committing perjury or Eric Holder being held in contempt of Congress. But “cold” conflicts have become “hot” as partisans feel that they might personally benefit from taking more dramatic actions at the expense of civility.
The indictment of Donald Trump marks a step up the escalation ladder. No longer are attacks merely rhetorical quips or political smears. Serious allegations are now materializing in the criminal justice system, and they have the full backing of law enforcement entities. Trump isn’t just being subjected to the politically compromising but harmless investigations that marked the good old days—he finds himself in legal jeopardy with the possibility of incarceration.
Furthermore, there are serious questions about Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s motivations in the Trump case. He took the James approach, successfully campaigning on going after Trump in a jurisdiction that went 90% for Biden in 2020. Now, Bragg is following through on his promise, kowtowing to his more vociferous constituents.
Fighting Fire with Fire Sets Lady Justice Ablaze
Campaigns, especially law enforcement ones, dedicated to the personalized prosecution of political foes is an astounding precedent.
Political prosecutions are one thing; looking for a way to prosecute an opponent using a novel legal theory is wholly more concerning. That kind of strategy can only be answered in kind, incinerating what may be the last and most imperatively “nonpartisan” sector of government.
Even more damaging may be the rewriting of the rules of the game: arrest or be arrested. Note that Republican leaders are already talking about how they can bring charges against Biden or his family in friendly districts. This is not a political system that is impartial or fruitful.
If the mundane act of engaging in public debate invites possible investigation and incarceration, most Americans will simply be pushed out of the conversation. This is a cost too high: We need more Americans taking part in our democratic system, not fewer.
* The views expressed in this article solely represent the views of the author, not the views of the Chicago Thinker.