Criminal indictments are not enough: Donald Trump must be defeated at the ballot box

But even defeating Trump at the polls will be insufficient to secure the future of American democracy

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published August 2, 2023 6:01AM (EDT)

Donald Trump | Voting Booth (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump | Voting Booth (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

In 2016, almost 63 million Americans failed a basic test of civic responsibility and wisdom when, with the help of a broken and archaic Electoral College, they elevated Donald Trump, a reality TV show star, professional wrestling heel, confirmed sexual assaulter and failed casino owner to the White House over Hillary Clinton, one of the most accomplished, experienced, and distinguished public servants in recent American history.

In 2020, some 74 million Americans failed their second test of civic responsibility and wisdom when they voted for Trump again. This time they made the same decision with the experience and hindsight of Trump's two impeachments, demonstrated mental unwellness, democide via the COVID pandemic, white supremacy and betrayal of the nation's interests at home and abroad. 

In 2024, the American people will be faced with a third test of their civil responsibility, wisdom and collective intelligence. The future of the country as a democracy governed by the rule of law and the Constitution is almost literally on the ballot.

Donald Trump is currently the Republican Party's presumed presidential nominee. By the time of Election Day 2024, all indicators suggest that Trump will be embroiled in multiple criminal trials where he could potentially be sentenced to hundreds of years in prison. Depending on the timeline and outcome of the criminal trials and appeals process, Donald Trump may even be in prison on Election Day 2024 – which would not disqualify his candidacy or presidency if he were to win.

Donald Trump has made Hitler-like threats to crush his and the MAGA movement's perceived "enemies" in a campaign of revenge and terror targeting the Democrats, liberals, progressives, and others once he is back in power. As outlined in Trump's "Agenda 47" plan, he will become a type of de facto dictator if he takes power again.

In reaction to his latest criminal indictment, his third handed down just this year, Trump's campaign released a statement likening his prosecution to "Nazi Germany in the 1930s."

In a recent interview with Ali Velshi on MSNBC, historians Timothy Snyder and Anne Applebaum explained the extreme importance of the 2024 Election and defeating Donald Trump for the future of American democracy and the rule of law:  

Snyder explained to Velshi that:

The fundamental difference is sometimes people will break laws in the name of a principle, and that principle can itself be the rule of law. That's actually the foundation, the history of the United States of America. The common law tradition that we inherited from Britain assumed that the king was not above the law, the basis of the American Revolution, therefore, was holding the king to the law. And once we had done that, we then wrote up that common law in the form of a written constitution, which made it very clear that there would be no king and that nobody would be above the law. The President is someone who holds office for a certain period of time; it's not a special person who is somehow above the law.

[When] Mr. Trump talks about being retribution or he threatens revenge what he's doing is that he is using fascist language. He's using language from an entirely different political system, one which says that that law doesn't matter, that there's no difference between the leader and the party and the state, and the people. Everything ultimately comes down to the whim and the will of one person. If we want to get ourselves into a fascist system, then the thing to do.... is not to prosecute, Mr. Trump, because the meaningful polarization in this country, I believe, is between people who believe in law, and people who don't....

The people who don't believe in law are going to be galvanized and encouraged by a powerful figure, someone who has been president and wishes to be president. And of course, that's the difference. The person who is the leader and has the power is now calling upon people to break the law.

Applebaum located Trump's obvious criminality and his disdain for the rule of law in the context of how the (then) Republican Party turned against President Nixon and is now supporting the demagogue and full-on dictator in waiting Donald Trump:

The reason why that situation was so different from this one is that Nixon was condemned by his own party. So Republicans in Congress, Republicans in the country, not all of them, but many of them wanted him to resign, they participated in the Watergate hearings process. And by the time Gerald Ford became president, there was a consensus, at least within the party leadership that, you know, that he was well out of the White House. We don't have that now. We have a Republican Party that is encouraging Trump, that is spreading the same kinds of messages that is .... questioning whether January 6, even was an insurrection at all, even though as.... we have more and more evidence that it was.

And so in that circumstance, it's very important that the law proceeds further, because there isn't anything else that can stop that further radicalization of the Republican Party....Let me mention one more precedent, which is that of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, who was released from prison, this is....way back in the early days before he had been elected. He was released from prison after an attempted insurrection and this actually encouraged his followers more….we also have to think about what are the risks of not condemning him, of not carrying the January 6 investigations to their to their obvious end, because if we don't do it, then we give.... more impetus to that movement.

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In an analysis at the Washington Post, reporters Dan Balz, Ann E. Marimow and Perry Stein highlight how the confluence of Donald Trump's criminal trials and the 2024 Election are an extreme stress test for American democracy and society:

America's institutions have been attacked repeatedly over the past half-dozen years, thanks principally to the conduct and actions of Donald Trump. The next 18 months could further undermine confidence in democracy and the rule of law as the former president seeks a return to the White House while defending himself against federal and state criminal charges.

Not since the Vietnam War in the 1960s or perhaps the mid-19th century before the Civil War has the country's governing structure faced such disunity and peril, given the unprecedented nature of a federal criminal indictment of a former president compounded by the fact that Trump has been charged by the Justice Department in the administration of the Democrat who defeated him in 2020 and who is his likeliest general election opponent in 2024, if Trump is nominated again by the Republican Party.

Scholars, legal experts and political strategists agree that what lies ahead is ugly and unpredictable. Many fear that the 2024 election will not overcome the distrust of many Americans in their government and its pillars, almost no matter the outcome. "A constitutional democracy stands or falls with the effectiveness and trustworthiness of the systems through which laws are created and enforced," said William Galston of the Brookings Institution. "If you have fundamental doubts raised about those institutions, then constitutional democracy as a whole is in trouble."

The indictment in the case involving Trump's retention of classified government documents coming in the midst of a presidential campaign raises legal questions about what might happen if he were to be convicted and elected. Could Trump pardon himself? Could he serve as president after a conviction? Could he run for office from a prison cell? Depending on events, those could become ripe for adjudication.

Balz, Marimow, and Stein reach the semi-hopeful conclusion that:

Many of Trump's critics wish that through the legal process, the former president were somehow disqualified from serving again as president. The counterargument to that is that questions about his fate and the country's future probably would be better answered at the ballot box than in the courtroom.

A conviction and a decisive defeat at the ballot box might force Trump from the political scene and cause the Republican Party to move in a different direction, although in an era of close elections, the prospect of 2024 producing a blowout in either direction remains doubtful — and even that would not necessarily cleanse the system.

"The country functioned after the Civil War," Galston added, "but it was a long time before the system was drained of the political poisons of the Civil War."

The 2024 Election is most than a year away, but at this early point in what is truly a historic and unprecedented moment in American history, Trump the traitor ex-president is either tied with or slightly behind President Biden in many reputable polls.

In a new essay at CNN, Harry Enten sounds this alarm about the very real possibility of a Trump victory in 2024:

Donald Trump is facing two indictments, with the potential for more. Political wisdom may have once suggested the former president's bid for a second White House term would be nothing but a pipe dream. But most of us know better by now.

Trump is not only in a historically strong position for a nonincumbent to win the Republican nomination, but he is in a better position to win the general election than at any point during the 2020 cycle and almost at any point during the 2016 cycle….

The fact that the polling between Biden and Trump is so close shouldn't be much of a surprise. Elections are a choice between two candidates. Trump isn't popular, but neither is Biden. The two, in tandem, would be the most disliked presidential nominees in polling history, if their numbers hold through the election.

All that being said, the 2024 election will probably come down to a few swing states. Polling in swing states has been limited because we're still over a year from the election.

One giant warning sign for Democrats was a late June Quinnipiac University poll from Pennsylvania, a pivotal state for the past few election cycles where Trump rallied base supporters in Erie on Saturday. The state barely voted for Trump in 2016 and for Biden in 2020.

Trump was up on Biden by 1 point in the Quinnipiac poll – a result within the margin of error, but nevertheless a remarkable achievement for the former president.

Why? It was only the second Pennsylvania poll that met CNN standards for publication since 2015 that had Trump ahead of either Biden (for 2020 and 2024) or Clinton (for 2016).

The good news for Democrats is that general election polling, unlike primary polling, is not predictive at this point. Things can most certainly change.

But for now, the chance that Trump is president in less than two years time is a very real possibility.

It is true that Donald Trump's impending criminal trials and the chaos and trouble that surrounds him more generally, has caused some Republican voters to modulate their support for his candidacy.

But there is a key qualifier: They support what Trump and his fascist MAGA movement represent but find Trump's personal style to be a liability in advancing their revolutionary project of ending multiracial pluralistic democracy.

Such a calculation is no victory for the long-term health and safety of American democracy. In the end, Republican and other Trump voters have been so radicalized by their leaders, news media, and other right-wing influentials that they will rally around Trump on Election Day no matter what because they have been programmed to hate the Democratic Party and "liberals".

As others have warned, today's Republicans and conservatives hate the Democrats and their voters (especially black and brown people and the LGBTQI community) more than they love the country and real democracy.

At the New York Times, Shane Goldmacher writes:

Former President Donald J. Trump is dominating his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination, leading his nearest challenger, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, by a landslide 37 percentage points nationally among the likely Republican primary electorate, according to the first New York Times/Siena College poll of the 2024 campaign.

Mr. Trump held decisive advantages across almost every demographic group and region and in every ideological wing of the party, the survey found, as Republican voters waved away concerns about his escalating legal jeopardy. He led by wide margins among men and women, younger and older voters, moderates and conservatives, those who went to college and those who didn't, and in cities, suburbs and rural areas.

The poll shows that some of Mr. DeSantis's central campaign arguments — that he is more electable than Mr. Trump, and that he would govern more effectively — have so far failed to break through. Even Republicans motivated by the type of issues that have fueled Mr. DeSantis's rise, such as fighting "radical woke ideology," favored the former president.

Overall, Mr. Trump led Mr. DeSantis 54 percent to 17 percent. No other candidate topped 3 percent support in the poll….

Goldmacher continues:

Yet these arguments do not appear to be working. A strong majority of Republicans surveyed, 58 percent, said it was Mr. Trump, not Mr. DeSantis, who was best described by the phrase "able to beat Joe Biden." And again, it was Mr. Trump, by a lopsided 67 percent to 22 percent margin, who was seen more as the one to "get things done."…

Yet Mr. Trump's grip on the Republican Party is so strong, the Times/Siena poll found, that in a head-to-head contest with Mr. DeSantis, Mr. Trump still received 22 percent among voters who believe he has committed serious federal crimes — a greater share than the 17 percent that Mr. DeSantis earned from the entire G.O.P. electorate.

In a series of posts on Twitter, Rick Wilson, former Republican Party strategist and co-founder of the pro-democracy organization the Lincoln Project, explained Trump's power over the Republican Party and its voters and why his criminality and other sociopathic behavior will not break that hold.           

The GOP base in our polling, and literally every public and private poll I've seen does not give a damn about the truth viz Trump. At. All. Zero. Nada.

The final group of people are trying to weaken Trump by calling him a loser (he is), political poison (he is), a criminal (QED, everything), and a weak man who will lose to Joe Biden are hoping against hope that moral or political suasion will reform the GOP base.

The base is irredeemable. They can only be changed by destroying the GOP as it exists today. No ad strategy, alternate candidate, impassioned op-ed, or heartfelt speech will reclaim them from the spell of Trump, Fox, and Facebook.

They're not economically anxious. They're not the Forgotten Workin' Man. They're not Ordinary Folks Who Just Don't Like All These Progressives Ideas.

They're willing members of an authoritarian personality cult. They've bent and sworn.

Also on Twitter, Dean Obeidallah, SiriusXM radio host, echoed Wilson's truth-telling:

The fact trump is way ahead in GOP polls says less about Trump and everything about GOP base. The gop has become the enemy of democracy and freedoms. We are confronted by a full blown fascist movement. We must utterly destroy this version of the gop to save our Republic.

In a healthy democracy and society, Donald Trump would not be the Republican Party's nominee having been exiled from public life and already prosecuted and put in prison for his decades-long crime spree. And in the America that actually exists, even allowing for all of its many defects, Donald Trump should be far behind President Joe Biden and not competitive with him in the 2024 Election. The rot in Americas political culture and larger society is that deep.

Defeating Trump at the polls will be insufficient by itself to secure the future of American democracy. Trump must also be punished by the courts. If both those things happen only then will the nation have the breathing room to begin to recuperate from the Age of Trump, and then do what is necessary to fix the root causes of American neofascism so that such a plague is vanquished for the foreseeable future.

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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