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The Trump Storm

The Trump Storm In an otherwise unchanged climate

2022 and 2023 saw a large number of suits brought against Trump, some of them legally and others still in the court of public opinion, from where his critics hope they will move into the courthouse. These cover a bewildering array of charges, ranging from rape to defamation to campaign finance fraud, and from improper use and storage of classified materials to insurrection. 

What are the charges? 

Trump has been charged with 34 counts of falsifying documents related to payments made to women with whom he had sexual affairs in order to buy their silence. The main woman involved was the porn actress Stormy Daniels, whose case has been discussed since the beginning of Trump's tenure. The payments were made by Trump's lawyer, Michael Cohen, and were reimbursed from Trump organization funds marked as legal expenses. Normally, such actions, however disgraceful, would constitute a misdemeanor for which Trump would be fined, but Cohen was also well-positioned in Trump's campaign, and a visionary prosecutor made him declare, as part of Cohen's 2018 agreement with authorities regarding his personal financial crimes, that those payments represented a campaign contribution because Stormy Daniels' silence and the silence of the rest of Trump's “harem” facilitated his election as President, not just saving him from an extremely costly divorce from Melania Trump. The theory seems at least strange, given that no one, not even Trump's most fervent supporters, had illusions about his compatibility with the image of the American Christian family man who does not stray from the straight and narrow. American electoral laws provide for all sorts of ambiguous situations of financial delinquency in a (vain) attempt to limit the massive influence of money on American elections and, implicitly, on American elected officials. In this sense, the law does not only analyze illicit or fraudulent spending from official campaign funds, but also spending in favor of the candidate made by third parties, possibly without their involvement, which would help them in the campaign and could constitute a form of corruption or influence. Therefore, Political Action Committees must be formed and declared in order to campaign for someone without coordination with that campaign. In this regard, Trump's payments for the silence of his mistresses were interpreted, in the discretion allotted to prosecutors, as a violation of electoral law, and the same state prosecutor, Alvin Bragg, decided that the misdemeanor should be treated as a criminal offense, hence all the fuss with Trump's surrender, fingerprinting, and plea before the judge.

The trial is interpreted by most of American society, whether pro- or anti-Trump, as a political attack. On the one hand, most of the population does not exactly understand why Trump is accused (after all, it is the right of any American to buy the silence of his mistress), but understands why the trial is explosive in the current electoral context. On the other hand, the trial has been simmering since 2018, when several attorneys general refused to file charges (indicating they did not believe they could win). Even recently, Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Convention resolved a similar situation by paying an individual and institutional fine of nearly $200,000 for campaign payments in 2016 to the authors of the discredited Steele Dossier (which launched the conspiracy theory of cooperation between Trump and Russians to defraud the elections), payments which were recorded as purchases of legal services. We, therefore, have a similar situation but resolved much more discreetly and in line with the American practice of fining the numerous irregularities accumulated with campaign spending in election years.

The second reason to assume that this is a politically motivated trial stems from the way in which, over the past two years (but actually since Trump's victory in 2016), there have been attempts to fish out a case to prosecute Trump. We had the scandal with his tax returns, then the scandal with the classified documents from Mar-a-Lago (with rumors about nuclear secrets, which would carry imprisonment penalties if founded). Neither of them advanced to the indictment stage, probably due to lack of confidence in the outcome. I do not think this trial will go in favor of the authorities, but if Trump loses and loses at the Court of Appeals, as ideologized as the rest of New York state, he will surely prevail at the Supreme Court, which is controlled by a presumed conservative majority.

Trump will have bigger problems with other lawsuits that are being prepared against him, which are not so frivolous and are still in the investigation phase, such as the attempted diversion of the 2020 election results in Georgia, the alleged attempt to prevent the succession of executive power in validating the election results in Congress, and potentially, involvement in organizing the January 6, 2021 protests that resulted in the invasion of the Capitol. Trump’s mugshot from his racketeering charges in Georgia has become an iconic image of simmering rage for his fans and a rallying cry for the Trumpist right, as well as a lucrative merchandising opportunity for the business savvy Trump campaign, which showed in 2016 and 2020 how adept it is at raking in small donations from larger numbers of people. Tying him to the protests is the only existing legal method to prevent Trump from running again, but the current trial does not yet target Trump. We may witness, as we approach November 2024, other attempts of lawfare (war through laws) against Trump – a repetition of the accusation of negligence with classified documents, or perhaps an accusation of using illegal immigrants in the U.S. labor force. The latter would be an extraordinary irony, considering Trump's political position, the general lack of enforcement of the law regarding the labor of those without work visas, but also the fact that it is almost certain that Trump is guilty, given that he is a successful businessman in the hospitality and construction industries. 

How does this situation affect Trump’s chances in the 2024 elections? 

The indictment of Trump generates more unfavorable effects, but there are also advantages. On the one hand, Trump could be prevented either by an order not to leave the state of New York (or any particular jurisdiction where he is standing trial) or by incarceration or home arrest from traveling through America to participate in his electoral events. Trump is an exceptional communicator, capable of energizing the crowds, which distinguished him from Bush and Biden. In 2016, it was an advantage. In 2020, the pandemic limited his opportunities to perform in front of crowds. If he is prevented from showcasing himself in this way, then his campaign will suffer because he did not distinguish himself through extraordinarily competent campaigns at the logistical or financial level. Trump has always been behind his opponents when it comes to contributions attracted, although it should be mentioned that he has the best results in collecting small donations from the people, but electoral finances are dominated by billionaires, corporations, and other institutional donors (unions, universities, etc.). This is part of the story of his populist authenticity. Trump's campaigns did not even stand out in the acquisition of advertising space in mass media, or in exceptional logistics of volunteerism for door-to-door promotion and ensuring the mobility of potential voters to reach the polls. The only area of technical competence was targeting voters through social media, through their profiling.

Therefore, Trump will suffer a major disadvantage if he cannot attend his own electoral events. Furthermore, the Stormy Daniels scandal, his public humiliation and constant character attacks may alienate voters who are sensitive to social disapproval, such as religious or respectable middle-class individuals. Many independents might also give up on a “known” insurrectionist. Potential institutional donors may also be intimidated, such as family-friendly corporations, Conservative-adjacent ones or those with Christian branding (the Chick-fil-A fast-food chain being an example). His opponents know this, which explains not only the classification of the offense as a criminal matter requiring a trial but also the fetishistic insistence in the media on the process of fingerprinting, photographing, and taking Trump into custody. If they could have justified it, prosecutors would have handcuffed and possibly held him in custody, but the partisan media insisted that Trump would NOT be handcuffed and would NOT be detained. The insistence serves the purpose of humiliating him in front of American society, delighting his detractors and demoralizing his supporters.

The only positive aspect of the situation is that the ridicule of these charges served to increase support for Trump in the Republican primary elections. Since the first major indictment was announced, Trump has surpassed Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, by 20 percentage points, reaching 50% of the party's support. Due to this popular outrage, even DeSantis felt the need to defend Trump (who, in his style, constantly attacked his main ideological ally because of electoral rivalry). DeSantis at one point announced that he would not cooperate with an extradition order if Trump refused to surrender in New York. We can also see a scenario in which support for Trump among independents will increase significantly, and this episode would boost his support among Hispanic and African American minorities who feel unjustly treated by the American justice system, delivering him the victory in 2024. This mobilization would be very important because the widespread dissemination of the 2020 election theft theory in favor of Biden (under Trump's nose at the White House) had the perverse effect of demoralizing voters who could have chosen not to vote in 2024, on the grounds that it is pointless to make this effort (the elections being held on a workday and companies not being obliged to give employees time off to vote). 

Could Trump be prevented from running? 

The American Constitution is very short and there are very few precedents in this area. Therefore, there are very few concrete opportunities for Trump's opponents to prevent him from running. In theory, he could run, win, and govern even from prison (assuming he does not pardon himself). The only codified way to prevent him from running would be through the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which limits the right to be elected of those convicted of rebellion and was designed to block Confederate leaders from assuming public office after the end of the Civil War. This is why Trump's opponents rhetorically insist that the protests and the invasion of the Capitol on 6 January 2021 constitute an insurrection, a term which I do not find applicable without acknowledging that there have been 1001 unrepressed, even celebrated, insurrections in America in recent years. The latest being on the part of pro-Palestine supporters in the wake of the October 7th terrorist attacks. If the ongoing congressional and legal investigation into the events of January 6 manages to link Trump to the planning and coordination of the protests, then the amendment could be invoked to take away his right to run. This does not mean that Trump could not be prevented from running in another way, but it will require a fierce congressional and institutional political confrontation to establish this very dangerous precedent given the polarization of American society. Victory would not be guaranteed for Democrats, even the most timid Republicans (and many Democrats) understanding that they will be next on the list if the loss of the right to participate in politics is normalized after a conviction in America's extraordinarily litigious society. They have the example of the chaos created by the normalization of impeachment as a political weapon, in which there is no President who is not constantly threatened with being impeached like Bill Clinton or Donald Trump. 

Could we witness violent protests from Trump supporters? 

I do not believe there will be significant protests, not because the population is not agitated, but because the reaction of authorities and the media to the Charlotte, North Carolina, and especially the Washington DC protests on January 6, 2021, serve as a deterrent to protests. The difference between America and many other polarized countries is that the political tribes in conflict do not live next to each other, they do not occupy the same space. Republicans are the party of rural and suburban areas, Democrats are the party of big cities. An American electoral map looks like a Democratic archipelago in a sea of Republican red. But this means that any significant Republican protest takes place on Democratic territory, to have an echo, like the protests on January 6th, because that's where institutional power is. However, such protests, especially with a tendency to become violent and in a politically polarized society depend on the existence of officials willing to facilitate these actions. Whether we are talking about the Weimar Republic or the Southern American terrorized by the Ku Klux Klan, the existence of friendly prosecutors, judges, sheriffs, journalists, etc. supports and encourages protesters' trust in their cause. The Nazi electoral victory in Germany in 1933 was preceded by their victories in street fights against socialists and communists, facilitated by the larger number of judges who treated Nazi defendants with leniency. In the America of the 2010s and 2020s, Black Lives Matter or Antifa-inspired protests, often violent and destructive, took place mainly in Democratic jurisdictions, where friendly media produced exoneration rhetoric, friendly mayors gave them space to express themselves (and space to destroy, in a memorable speech by the Mayor of Baltimore), friendly prosecutors refused to charge them and reduced their charges to misdemeanors, using the discretion they have under the American system, friendly judges allowed them to be released on bail or gave them light sentences, and friendly civil society groups were allowed to raise donations for them, including on online platforms (and using the image of friendly celebrities).

The radical supporters of Republicans or Trumpists do not benefit from this infrastructure, as seen from the detention of January 6 protesters without trial for over two years, the cancellation of fundraising efforts for polarizing figures like Kyle Rittenhouse, and the hysterical media coverage. If they were to protest in any random town in Alabama, they would be safe, but they would have no impact. This fundamental asymmetry is one of the reasons why the American left is becoming less and less willing to compromise with the right at the political level, especially when it comes to right-wing radicals, while left-wing radicals enjoy prestige and protection. The double standard is visible and widely commented on outside of the American prestige media that we consume in Europe and from which we form a misguided image of the situation.

In conclusion, January 6th proved that the Trump movement does not have the institutional influence to offer protection to its street auxiliaries and did not have the power, even with Trump in the White House, to punish the Democratic auxiliaries, including when they invaded the Capitol in previous years or when they stormed the White House fences in May 2020, devastating also Lafayette Park and the church of the American Presidents (and Trump was mocked for his evacuation to the bunker under the White House). Therefore, any pro-Trump protest will be severely punished, especially if it becomes violent, as could very easily happen either naturally or through infiltrated agitators or counter-protests. People will protest at the polls by choosing Trump or by keeping a close eye on things when Trump is (self-)neutralized. The next populist figure mind end up being the Alexander that Americans seem to be looking for to cut the political Gordian knot, and becoming a Caesar in the process. At the same time, trust in the system and state institutions will continue to collapse, and the cynicism of the population (on both sides of the political spectrum) will promote an even more rapid decline of the institutions, as it will encourage ambitious actors to make arbitrary decisions in their own interest. It will also encourage ideological entrepreneurs to further abuse (informal) institutions and (unwritten) rules, pushing the US through small steps to even greater Balkanization. 


Despite running a mostly generic liberal Republican Presidency, with a throwback to the past through anti-immigration rhetoric and muscular posturing abroad (ironically, Clinton comes to mind), Trump’s detractors are egging each other on to greater feats of political and legal exceptionalism in order to catch Trump with something, anything, that can serve to neutralize him. Ironically, they are making him stronger among many Independents and on-the-fence Republicans. The self-destructiveness of the American elites has reached a fever pitch, sacrificing media credibility, trust in institutions and stabilizing norms. It is like a sort of auto-immune response to one of the laziest populists in recent history, whose tough talk was rarely matched by tough policy and who could have easily been coopted through his vanity and need for a governing apparatus, as the neoconservatives who staffed his Administration during the latter half of his term proved. For liberal America, it seems like the new motto is “après Trump, le deluge”. 

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