The charges announced Tuesday by special prosecutor Jack Smith constitute the most serious legal crisis yet for Donald Trump. The indictment covers a wide range of actions Trump took between the election in November 2020 and the certification of the results by Congress on January 6, 2021. These centered around a plan to assemble parallel slates of pro-Trump electors from states Joe Biden won, disqualify those states’ legal electors, and then convene an Electoral College with a pro-Trump majority that would install him into the presidency for a second term.
Trump justified this scheme on the basis of a false narrative about massive voter fraud, arguing that the election itself was illegitimate. By questioning the legitimacy of the election, Trump violated one of the cardinal rules of elite politics. The “peaceful transfer of power” is a cherished practice within the ruling class because it is a pillar of stability for their system. The rich and powerful are divided into many factions with their own particular interests that compete with each other for power. Without an orderly process for one presidential administration to end and another to begin, the struggle between these factions could take on highly disruptive and violent dimensions that could threaten the very survival of their system of political and economic domination.
There are countless ways that elections in a capitalist society are illegitimate. Ultra-rich donors dominate the process and determine who has the resources to run a viable campaign and who does not. There are steep legal hurdles for any party other than the Democrats or Republicans to even be listed on the ballot. Executives at corporate media outlets determine which candidates get airtime and how the main issues are framed. A worker has never been president, but nearly every president in the past 100 years has been a millionaire. To call this system of rule by the rich “democratic” is laughable.
But Trump’s claim that the 2020 election was a fraud is of course not based on any of this. He hoped to overturn the result by invalidating the ballots cast by hundreds of thousands of Black and Latino voters in critical swing states, falsely claiming that they had illegally voted.
There is no doubt that this campaign was criminal. Trump sought to prolong his rule for another four years by concocting a completely fabricated narrative that would serve as the basis for both bureaucratic maneuvering by politicians and naked mob violence. Trump’s accusations of voter fraud were laser-focused on majority Black and Latino areas and had a clear racist character. For instance, he publicized a video of two Black poll workers in Atlanta (who later were bombarded with death threats) and falsely claimed it showed them rigging the count, and proclaimed that in general “bad things happen in Philadelphia” and therefore the reported vote totals were not to be trusted.
Facing dismal approval ratings, Joe Biden is hoping to gain electoral advantage by posturing as the only person who can protect people’s basic rights from Trump. But one look at his record in office shows what an outrageous notion that is. Biden has accelerated the destruction of the planet by greenlighting massive fossil fuel extraction, trampled on the right to strike by blocking rail workers from walking off the job, and cut a deal to raise the debt ceiling by kicking people off of food stamps. Beyond the United States, his administration has imperiled the whole world (and wasted hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars) pursuing its new Cold War agenda against Russia and China that could lead to catastrophic global conflict. He has maintained Trump’s cruel blockades of Cuba and Venezuela that lead to needless suffering and death.
The road ahead
This is the third criminal case that Trump is facing. One case involves hiding a hush money payment made during the 2016 campaign and is being handled by prosecutors in Manhattan. Another, brought by special prosecutor Smith’s team, deals with classified documents that Trump retained and hid after he left office. These two initial prosecutions led to increased support for Trump within the Republican Party and helped cement his front-runner status in the primary. Trump was able to push a narrative that these cases – one involving a personal scandal that has already been well-known for years, and another that attempts to paint his retention of documents (apparently for the purpose of bragging to friends) as an act of espionage – are examples of the weaponization of the judiciary to political ends.
Opposition to Trump comes from many different sectors of society. Tens of millions of working class people are rightfully outraged about the war-mongering, pro-corporate policies that Trump pursued and the disgusting bigotry he promotes. But there are also large sections of the ruling class that despise Trump for the damage he has done to the stability of their system. The job of the president in a capitalist government is to manage the common affairs of the entire ruling class, and to keep a lid on tensions in society that could be disruptive to the functioning of capitalism. But Trump was and is purely concerned about himself, regardless of the damage his actions may do to the interests of other members of the elite or how he might inflame social conflict.
In the Manhattan case and the documents case, it was easier for Trump to present the prosecution as an expression of this elite opposition, and the underlying issues involved are of relatively little concern to most people in the country. This most recent case has a different character than the other two. It is about a sweeping plan to overturn the will of the voters using lies, intimidation and violence – effectively a plot by Trump to impose an unelected regime led by himself.
But even still, it is far from certain how the politics of this case will play out. The fact that more than two and a half years have passed between the commission of these crimes and the indictment works to Trump’s advantage as he seeks to paint this as yet another example of Biden’s weaponization of the Department of Justice. It was just as obvious the day Trump left office as it is today that he is guilty of these crimes, which were committed in plain sight. But now the indictment is being rolled out in the midst of a presidential campaign, and in fact at the moment when Trump is being recognized across the spectrum as the clear favorite to be the Republican nominee.
In the weeks following the January 6 attack on the Capitol, Trump was truly isolated. Not only did powerful institutions like the military and the leadership of the Republican Party reproach him for his actions that day, his own base was confused and demoralized. This crucial window of opportunity was squandered in favor of a meaningless impeachment and a drawn-out series of Congressional hearings. During this time, Trump was able to rewrite the history of January 6 in the minds of millions of his supporters and consolidate the false election fraud narrative as the majority position among Republican voters.
To have a top contender for the presidency campaign while facing multiple criminal trials – including one that involves subverting the constitutional order – is unprecedented in U.S. history. The 2024 election is already shaping up to be a historic political battle that could go in any number of unpredictable directions. The prospect of a second Trump presidency is deeply alarming to a huge number of people. But as was made clear again and again when he was in the White House, it is a mistake to sit idly by and hope that a police agency or prosecutor is going to save us from Trump or the far-right, anti-worker agenda he represents. The task remains to build a fighting, grassroots movement united around an alternative vision – not the pro-Wall Street politics of the Democratic Party, but a new world where equality and peace prevail in a society where a life with dignity is guaranteed.