Don't count Trump out: He could still win in 2024 — or destroy the GOP

Our experts conclude the Trump indictments are "extraordinary" and "necessary" — but he will seek revenge

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published July 26, 2023 5:45AM (EDT)

Donald Trump (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
Donald Trump (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

As I navigate the latter stages of the Trumpocene era, I continue to be guided by the principles of "pessimistic optimism." I will not fully surrender to pessimism because there may be no recovery from that state of learned helplessness. Likewise, I will not fully embrace optimism because to do so in such dangerous times would be naive and foolish. The hope-peddlers in the mainstream media can push those fictions; most of them are privileged enough that they will never face the consequences of being wrong.

But allowing for my pessimistic optimism, these last few weeks, in which Donald Trump and his cabal appear to be further encircled and cornered by the law, brings some hope that, with work and struggle, the people of this country may be closer to escaping the Trumpocene than we were even a few months ago. Let us remember Trump himself is a symptom, not the disease; Healing America's deep cultural and political rot is another matter entirely, but escaping the Trumpocene is a required first step.

As we now know, last week Trump received a "target letter" from the Department of Justice indicating that he will likely be charged with more federal crimes — this time, specifically in connection with events surrounding his coup plot of Jan. 6, 2021. Trump himself has said he will soon be arrested and indicted in Washington for a number of alleged crimes, which of course he describes as more evidence that he is being persecuted and is the victim of a conspiracy. He may also face indictment in Georgia for his "fake elector" scheme and related efforts to overturn the 2020 election.

If there is one thing we know about Donald Trump, it is that he is a vengeful, angry person. He has been lashing out almost constantly against special counsel Jack Smith, Attorney General Merrick Garland, President Biden, the Democrats in general, prosecutors and law enforcement, the imaginary "deep state" and other perceived enemies. He may finally realize that, for the first time in his life, he faces real consequences for his antisocial behavior — which could even mean federal prison.

Pessimistic optimism and its auxiliary order to "prepare for the worst and hope for the best" keeps returning me to the following questions: Is this really the moment of Trump's downfall? If so, why did it take so long? Where would we be now if Garland and the Department of Justice had moved faster investigating and indicting Donald Trump?

What will become of Trump's tens of millions of MAGA followers, the largely subservient Republican Party, the right-wing news media and all the other tools and weapons at his disposal? Will they once again help him escape justice and accountability for his innumerable alleged crimes? In an attempt to make sense of what comes next with Donald Trump and the future of American democracy, I recently asked a range of experts for their thoughts and insights.

This is the second article in a two-part series.

Noah Bookbinder is the president of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and a former federal prosecutor. He previously served as chief counsel for criminal justice for the Senate Judiciary Committee. 

I am hopeful that there is beginning to be a real possibility of meaningful accountability for the attack on our republic and for Donald Trump's many anti-democratic abuses. Accountability is crucial here, not just as a way to begin to repair the guardrails of our system of checks and balances, but more concretely to ensure that Donald Trump doesn't orchestrate the same kind of attack on our democracy again.

Even 18 months ago, it seemed almost inconceivable that Donald Trump would ever actually face criminal charges for his multitude of abuses, but now he has been indicted twice and it seems likely that he will be indicted twice more — federally in the coming week or two and in Georgia a few weeks later. These two likely indictments will concern Trump's most serious and dangerous conduct: his attempt to remain in power despite losing an election and his incitement of a violent attack to do it. I think there is also a real chance of enforcing the 14th Amendment's disqualification clause, which says that anyone who swore an oath to support the Constitution and engaged in insurrection is disqualified from office, and which the facts and law strongly support applying to Trump. These likely indictments will make that effort even stronger.

"Even 18 months ago, it seemed almost inconceivable that Donald Trump would ever actually face criminal charges for his multitude of abuses. But now he has been indicted twice and it seems likely that he will be indicted twice more."

Many pitfalls and risks remain. The window for real accountability is narrow and closing. Donald Trump will push hard to delay and evade, and there are many ways he could succeed. But the more different strong and credible accountability efforts he faces, the better the chance that one or several will succeed and that an understanding of his criminality will break through to more of the American people. 

Had the Department of Justice moved quickly and decisively, it is possible that indictments could have been returned with plenty of time to ensure trials before the 2024 election, which could have removed some of the uncertainty and risk we now face. That could have made real accountability a more likely result. Earlier indictments also could have moved public opinion and perhaps allowed for less resulting polarization.

Indicting a former president is an unprecedented and difficult step, and in some ways it is unsurprising and even reasonable that it took the attorney general time to understand the necessity of this step and become comfortable with it. It's not clear what the level of public support would have been without some of the intervening steps like the Jan. 6 select committee hearings and the Mar-a-Lago national security investigation, which likely couldn't have started earlier. Indeed, Jack Smith seems to have moved very quickly once he was appointed, and it's not clear moving at that pace would have been possible earlier since his work was built on many earlier investigations and prosecutions.

I do see some benefits to the way this unfolded and, more to the point, multiple likely indictments of a former president is an absolutely extraordinary result, and an important and necessary one for our democracy. I am grateful that it seems like we've gotten to that place, even if it took us some time to get there.

Trump will do everything in his power to delay trials until after the next election, in part in the hope that he is elected president and can then cause the Department of Justice to abandon prosecutions or even pardon himself. Jurors may be polarized, just as the country is. Finding a jury that will give these cases a fair hearing will be a challenge. The14th Amendment's disqualification clause has been little used in the past 150 years, and enforcement will surely face obstacles. And we should not ignore the possibility that Donald Trump could win an election. He has been very transparent about what he would do if he does win, including using the Department of Justice to go after his perceived enemies, consolidating unprecedented power in the presidency, and decimating the career civil service — all of which are key steps toward authoritarianism. So, the worst-case scenario seems pretty dark, and no part of it seems implausible to me.

That said, I think the causes for cautious optimism outweigh the reasons for deep anxiety. We expect that there will be three and likely four indictments of Donald Trump. His influence over state cases will be less than over the federal ones, even if he is elected president. I think prosecutors have brought extremely strong factual and legal cases thus far, and I have confidence in their ability to prove their cases in court. I also have confidence in the legal case, which CREW and others will bring, to disqualify Donald Trump under the 14th Amendment. 

"Repeated indictments, court presentations and public explanations of Donald Trump's criminality will continue to change the views of large segments of the American people, just as four years of devastating stories of his corruption as president did."

My experience also tells me that, even though it may be difficult to reach hardcore Trump supporters, telling a strong narrative over and over again is effective with the American people. Repeated strong indictments, court presentations and public explanations of Donald Trump's criminality and dangerously anti-democratic conduct will continue to change the views of large segments of the American people — just as four years of devastating stories of Trump's corruption during his presidency did.  Ultimately, the American people care deeply about democracy and about free and fair elections. I think a significant portion of the American people will come to the conclusion that accountability, both constitutional and criminal, for the attack on our democracy following the 2020 election is appropriate.

It's going to be a perilous and twisting road for the next couple of years. But I believe our republic will come through it.

Charlotte Hill is a political scientist and policy analyst who focuses on revitalizing democracy. She is director of the Democracy Policy Initiative at UC Berkeley's Goldman School of Public Policy.

We've all heard the phrase "cautiously optimistic." Well, I feel a variation of that — let's call it "anxiously optimistic." A few years ago, it was hard to imagine a successful Trump prosecution that didn't result in the total breakdown of U.S. society. And yet we're fully on the path toward his indictment and prosecution, and society is still chugging along, largely unperturbed. Threats of violence loom, but America's streets are mostly peaceful — for now.

I was certainly among those who vociferously argued for swift action against Trump, including during his presidency. I don't know where that would have led us, but I'm skeptical the prosecutorial process would have been so calm or quiet if it had gained momentum earlier in Biden's presidency, when Trump's baseless accusations of a stolen election carried more of an emotional charge on the political right. Trump may still be the most influential political voice among Republicans, but he is also clearly struggling to mobilize MAGA adherents against the indictment. That's a big point in favor of Garland's slow-and-steady approach.

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There's also something to say for the entire country, especially journalists, having the mental space to come to terms with the idea of a former president being prosecuted for major crimes like conspiracy, obstruction and civil rights violations. As Trump's presidency itself showed, even the most unfathomable ideas can indeed become fathomable with time. The human mind is nothing if not adaptable. Garland's choice to slow-roll the indictment has given many of us the opportunity to settle into a new reality in which former presidents are held accountable.

I don't have a strong sense of what will happen with the 2024 election, other than that it'll be chaotic. Even if Ron DeSantis wins the nomination, he is going to continue degrading American democracy, and he'll likely be more effective at it than Trump ever was.

"The most authoritarian strongman-esque figure in modern American history is actively being pursued by the Justice Department, and for the most part the country isn't falling apart. There's something to be said for the indifference that most Americans seem to feel toward politics."

That said, I take significant solace from the fact that political life has not devolved further this year. Yes, Biden is struggling in the polls; yes, Trump is still very popular with his base; yes, the democratic process continues to be attacked by GOP-led statehouses in ways that will give the Republican nominee a leg up next year. But the fact remains that the most authoritarian strongman-esque figure in modern American history is actively being pursued by the Justice Department, and for the most part the country isn't falling apart. There's something to be said for the indifference that most Americans seem to feel toward politics. It just might end up being the secret sauce that enables Trump to be held accountable.

Gregg Barak is an emeritus professor of criminology and criminal justice at Eastern Michigan University and author of "Criminology on Trump." He is a frequent contributor to Salon.

Without the indictment and based on the little we think we know, at minimum charges are pending against Trump in at least three areas of criminality. These are deprivation of rights under color of law, conspiracy to defraud the United States and witness tampering in the context of obstructing justice.   

Overall, I am quite pleased by these developments, and I like the implications of the charges likely to come against Trump for several reasons, including that Jack Smith has apparently focused on, among other things, the nationwide fake elector scheme to deprive the people of their constitutional and democratic right to have all their votes counted. I also like the fact that in relation to the other criminal charges facing Trump, committed either before or after he was president, these alleged crimes were all committed while he was in the White House. 

In other words, these criminal matters of conspiratorial fraud for the purposes of trying to overturn (or actually rig) the outcome of the 2020 election strike at the very heart of American democracy and the constitutional rule of law.

I do not see any reason to speculate where things might have been had Merrick Garland acted with the same urgency back in the winter of 2021 as Jack Smith has done since he was appointed. I suspect that had there never been the House select committee investigation with its televised hearings and 800-page final report, and had Trump not announced his 2024 candidacy, Smith would never have been appointed to handle either the classified documents case or the attempt by Trump to overturn the peaceful transition of power, let alone both simultaneously. How unprecedented was Garland's appointment of one special counsel to handle two criminal investigations at the same time?

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The former president, who is very likely a sociopath and a malignant narcissist, has been spilling out his inner rage for his entire life, at every slight imaginable. Now he does so more than ever with each new criminal charge, and his rage will only continue to escalate as he sees his legal power withering away. Boss Trump has the backing and support of most of the GOP leadership (as well as other backstage multinational economic interests), not because they believe any of his disinformation or phony talking points, but rather because they are too afraid to speak and act on what they actually know to be the case.

Republicans have publicly doubled down again and again on normalizing Trump's preposterous behavior and insane narratives, making fools of themselves in the process. They are permanently stuck acting in accord with the Big Lies — the latest one being that Trump is only being prosecuted for his zillion crimes because he is the leading candidate for the 2024 Republican nomination — and are also stuck fruitlessly trying to weaponize the rule of law on Trump's behalf, in much the same vein as he did when he used Bill Barr and the DOJ for the benefit of his criminal associates and against his political enemies.

Best of all from my perspective, with Trump as their 2024 candidate they are stuck with their politically indefensible positions. Trump already trails Biden by five points or so in national polls, and these figures will only get better for Biden and worse for Trump as the calendar of criminal prosecutions plays out concurrently with the 2024 presidential campaign.

"Trump running as the sociopathic, vengeful, supposedly persecuted victim who has done 'everything perfectly' could cause the Republican Party to implode. Any other Republican nominee, win or lose, would keep post-Trump Trumpian authoritarianism very much alive."

Finally, as a part of this optimistic scenario, Trump running as the sociopathic, vengeful and supposedly persecuted victim who has done "nothing wrong" and "everything perfectly" could ultimately cause the Republican Party to implode. Any other Republican nominee, win or lose, would keep the post-Trump Trumpian authoritarianism very much alive in the body politic. Whereas Trump's final defeat, not by the forces of law enforcement per se but rather by the democratic electoral process, could very well become the death knell of the GOP.  

Rick Wilson is a co-founder of the Lincoln Project, a former leading Republican strategist and author of the books "Everything Trump Touches Dies" and "Running Against the Devil: A Plot to Save America From Trump — and Democrats From Themselves."

Trump's arrests are a feature of his candidacy to his followers, not a bug. He will raise enormous sums of money from this, and he will remain by and far away the leading candidate for the GOP nomination. 

No one should discount what can happen in this election. Democrats need to start acting like his arrests will do nothing and he can win this election. 

We are all frustrated by the pace of the investigation, but that only speaks to the fact that the Department of Justice is being methodical and making sure it is doing everything appropriately. This is the most consequential investigation in American history, and they have to get it right the first time. 

No one should doubt Trump's ability to run strongly in the election. Nor should anyone assume that Trump will go to jail or drop out of the race. 

Donald Trump is a threat to democracy who is using the threat of violence to scare his opponents and encourage the worst among his followers. He has an innate ability to create chaos and still has the support of an enormous number of American voters. No one should take for granted that this election is guaranteed for President Biden. 

One of the biggest concerns is the emergence of No Labels as a third party. Every single poll shows that a third-party candidate will take votes away from President Biden, and no third party has even received an Electoral College vote since the 1960s. 

The election of 2020 was close, and 2024 will be just as close. This is not a normal election, as Donald Trump has already shown he will do anything to stay in power. Now is not the time to flirt with third parties who have zero chance of winning and will only act as a spoiler to Biden and bring about another Trump presidency.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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