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Trump's Indictments Are Good for Democracy, Actually
America needs to see the former president held to legal account for his attempt to nullify the 2020 election
Another indictment of former president Donald Trump appears imminent: the Fulton County district attorney Fani Willis looks set to bring charges against Trump over his attempt to pressure Georgia’s top election official to overturn its 2020 presidential election results. This investigation has also apparently uncovered electronic communications between Trump campaign officials implicating them in an attempt to breach Georgia’s voting systems as part of their wider conspiracy to reverse Trump’s loss.
If Trump is in fact indicted for the fourth time this week, it’ll undoubtedly yield the same angst and hand-wringing that have accompanied Trump’s previous indictments. Holding Trump to account for any of his alleged crimes will only hurt the nation, some voices allege, whether by riling up Trump’s supporters or setting an ominous precedent for the prosecution of a presidential contender or in some other way. These arguments are sincere, but that doesn’t mean they should be taken too seriously—at least not when it comes to the upcoming local and recent federal charges brought against Trump for his attempt to override the will of the American people.
Reasonable people can and do disagree about the merits of Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg bringing charges against Trump for falsifying business records to cover up hush money payments ahead of the 2016 election. Nor does Special Counsel Jack Smith’s earlier indictment of Trump for possessing and—crucially—refusing to return some of the nation’s top secrets when he was no longer entitled do so pertain to Trump’s conduct in office. In both these cases, at least some of the arguments against prosecuting Trump due to the possible second- and third-order effects on the nation and its politics deserve a fair hearing.
But it’s hard to fret over the hypothetical negative consequences of the charges leveled by Special Counsel Smith on August 1. That’s because this particular indictment accuses Trump of nothing less than crimes against democracy itself.
Damning in its details, the indictment clearly and explicitly accuses Trump of conspiring to overturn the verdict of a presidential election he lost fair and square—an effort that culminated in the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. The former president now stands among the more than 1,000 individuals charged for their involvement in that assault. As with many of his other legal troubles, this indictment is entirely of Trump’s own doing; if he had simply done nothing and merely left office in January 2021 as required by law, he would not find himself in legal jeopardy now.
More importantly for American democracy, however, Smith and his team charge Trump with one count of violating a Reconstruction-era law and engaging in a “conspiracy against the right to vote and to have one’s vote counted.” According to the indictment, Trump and his co-conspirators aimed to deprive voters in at least five states of their basic rights by concocting and advancing preposterous schemes to nullify statewide election results and somehow remain in office amidst the resulting chaos.
In other words, Trump mounted an assault on every American’s right to vote for our own national political leaders—a right that sits at the very heart of our democracy.
It’s important to note what Special Counsel Smith and his team didn’t charge Trump with here: the indictment makes clear that it’s not taking issue with Trump’s repeated lies about the results of the 2020 election in and of themselves. As the charge sheet notes, Trump “had a right, like every American, to speak publicly about the election and even to claim, falsely, that there had been outcome-determinative fraud during the election and that he had won.” These lies remain relevant to the indictment, however, because they were in service of a wider conspiracy “to overturn the legitimate results of the 2020 presidential election”—a conspiracy that the indictment alleges continued even after the January 6 attack.
Given the gravity of these charges, it’s imperative that Trump be prosecuted—not given a pass based on the potential horrors that might result. If America is to remain a liberal democracy, there must be no impunity for such a direct and blatant attack on the foundation of a free society. It’s a matter of self-defense as much as anything else.
Widely articulated concerns about democratic norms and the “criminalization of politics” remain admirable, but they’re ultimately irrelevant when dealing with a figure like Trump. After all, this is a candidate who campaigned on jailing his opponent in 2016, repeatedly called for his political opponents to be prosecuted while holding the highest office in the land, and plans to turn the federal bureaucracy into an instrument of personal vengeance should he win another term as president. Worst of all, he conspired to stay in office despite his 2020 election loss and leveraged a violent mob that he and his co-conspirators riled up as part of this effort. Nor do claims that it’s best to beat Trump at the ballot box stand up to scrutiny, at least with regard to this latest federal indictment: the whole point of these charges is that Trump refused to accept defeat at the ballot box and plotted to reverse it.
The ugly truth is many of the norms and unwritten rules America relied on to make democracy work no longer function the way they once did. It’s now up to the law to pick up the pieces and try to at least start rebuilding them.
In that respect, at least, Trump’s indictment has already proven salutary for American democracy. Since he entered politics in 2015, Trump has degraded and deformed our public life—not just our politics—in so many ways that it’s impossible to keep track of them all. This prosecution represents a first step, however small, toward repairing the damage he’s done over the years. It won’t be the end of it, of course, and much will depend on the ultimate result of the trial as well as the outcome of the 2024 presidential campaign. But there’s no reason for excessive anxiety over this most recent federal indictment of Trump or the likely charges that will be brought in Georgia this week.
When confronted with someone like Trump who blatantly breaks the laws that ultimately backstop the unwritten rules of democracy, prosecution is the only appropriate and responsible remedy.