Lock him up! Prosecuting Trump won't save democracy, but it sure will make doing so easier

New York prosecutors still have a chance to stop the Trump train before his corruption irreparably tatters a nation

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published May 19, 2021 12:43PM (EDT)

Donald Trump behind bars (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump behind bars (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Let's get one thing out of the way first: The main reason to prosecute Donald Trump is that he's a shameless criminal. If the former president doesn't start tasting real consequences for it soon, he will only become more emboldened. No doubt one of the main reasons he tried so hard to steal the 2020 election was that he really enjoyed how he used "executive privilege" as a license for non-stop criming. If he manages to cheat or even win his way into the White House again, the amount of criminal activity we can expect will make his first term — which featured obstruction of justice, using taxpayer resources to blackmail a foreign leader, campaign finance violations, likely bribery schemes, and inciting an insurrection to overthrow an election — look like small time corruption.

Trump's criminality is central to who he is — as much as his callous disregard for others, his vanity, and his racism. So it was a very welcome sight this morning — or last night, for night owls and west coast denizens — to see New York Attorney General Letitia James announcing that her office is joining with Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance in a criminal investigation into the Trump Organization. James has been behind the so-far remarkably successful legal war on the NRA for financial misconduct and fraud, and so Trump and the grifters in his employ should be very scared right about now. Especially since, as reporting from the New York Times over the years has shown, what looks very much like tax fraud is rampant in the Trump family and its company. 

But if this investigation turns into a real prosecution, it wouldn't just be a welcome sign that there is such thing as consequences for the crimes committed by spoiled rich people who can't make an honest living. It would also be a huge boon to those who are struggling to save democracy from a Republican Party that's quickly organizing itself around the principle that they need to do whatever it takes to steal the White House in 2024

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Tying up Trump with a prosecution — or, dare we dream, jail time — wouldn't in itself be enough to kneecap the GOP war on democracy. But without the figurehead who inspires and compels them to greater acts of corruption, it would definitely be harder for Republicans to continue tearing apart our already tattered democracy. His leadership is a central component to the current Republican war on democracy. Trump's two-and-a-half month long coup effort — which culminated in a violent insurrection — may have failed, but it indisputably provided a road map for Republicans to remake the system so that the next time Trump tries to steal the election, he'll succeed.

In between sets of cheating at golf, Trump has been busy directing the GOP in what it needs to do to clear the path for him to be not just the 2024 nominee but to cheat his way into the White House. In particular, the purge of GOP officials who could get in his way and the fake "vote audit" in Arizona are being directed by Trump from his blog that few ordinary Americans read but which Republican leaders clearly treat as a religious text. It's clear that GOP leaders like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy don't really possess Trump's sociopathic gumption, and so look to him for all their cues on what to do next in this war on democracy. For instance, in the hours and days after the Capitol riot, McCarthy's base instinct was to oppose what had happened, out of a combination of personal outrage and no doubt a not-unreasonable assumption that violent insurrection is bad politics. But he's come around to Trump's pro-insurrection point of view, as evidenced by his efforts to stop Congress from forming a commission to investigate the events of January 6. It's unlikely McCarthy would be taking it this far if he didn't have Trump pressuring him. 

Republican leaders agree with Trump that democracy is an obstacle to be removed on their way to power. But the reason they stick by him in particular, despite his repugnant personality and demands that they show loyalty by humiliating themselves before him, is because they really do believe that no other leader can take them to the promised land of one-party permanent minority rule. As Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., recently told Fox News, "He's the most popular Republican in the country by a lot. If you try to drive him out of the Republican Party, half the people will leave." 

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Gutting democracy is, of course, about making sure that Republicans don't need to win elections to hold power. But still, it's not a task that can be accomplished without some measure of popular support. Republicans believe that Trump is the key to getting that popular support, and they may be right. Without Trump guiding the party and purging dissenters, the GOP is more likely to be set adrift and torn up by in-fighting. With him, they are marching in lockstep, and way more likely to succeed. 

Prosecuting Trump does invite the very real danger that it's seen as base political persecution — of the sort Trump routinely tried to impose on his opponents — and invites a backlash. That's why Biden has reportedly been down on the possibility of prosecuting Trump's many crimes, and the Department of Justice under the newly appointed Attorney General Merrick Garland doesn't seem to be moving in the direction of treating Trump like the criminal he is. 

These fears are, however, overblown.

Trump supporters are already hepped up on conspiracy theories about stolen elections and a deep state. They are already so convinced their orange savior is being persecuted that they can't be any more convinced. And while there will no doubt be hand-wringing from a mainstream press that is eager for a "both sides do it" narrative, the reality of Trump's rampant criminality will likely mute it. It just gets hard, at a certain point, to paint a twice-impeached confessed sexual assailant who incited an insurrection on live TV as the innocent target of a political vendetta. 

And ultimately, that's what this comes down to: The reason to prosecute Trump is because he's a criminal. That he's a threat to democracy cannot be teased apart from his criminality because so many of his crimes were aimed directly at undermining our democracy, from campaign finance violations to attempts to blackmail Ukraine's president to, of course, his attempted coup. The reason so many of the crimes he committed are crimes in the first place is because they threaten civil society. So not only is it important to prosecute Trump for the simple reason of rule of law, but it would also send a warning sign to other Republicans who have been emboldened by his audacious corruption: Modeling yourself after Trump is not as risk-free as he made it seem.

Let's hope that Vance and James are successful in their endeavor, not just for the satisfaction of seeing Trump face justice, but as an important step in saving our democracy. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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