Since the early days of Donald J. Trump’s rise, many observers in the United States and elsewhere have been waiting for the “big one” — the scandal or indictment or gaffe that would end his political career and the chaotic Trump era of American politics.
But while this week’s indictment, accusing him of conspiracies to overturn a legitimate election in pursuit of power, takes the United States into uncharted territory, a comparison to other countries suggests that the charges are neither a beginning nor an end in the Trump era.
Rather, the latest indictment may only be a signpost in the middle of a longer period of American politics: a period of polarization, weakened institutions and political crises.
Other countries’ recent histories suggest that allegations of severe wrongdoing by leaders are not just a problem on their own terms but a symptom of much deeper issues. And while prosecutions can be powerful tools to address the symptoms, evidence suggests that they cannot, on their own, fix underlying weaknesses in political systems.
A breakdown of consequences
When people wonder whether something is going to be the “big one,” they’re usually asking about the likely consequences: Could this scandal provoke such a strong response that it ends Mr. Trump’s political career?
For much of modern political history, the story went something like this: A politician does something that violates laws or important norms, like abusing the powers of their office. The public finds out, and a scandal grows. Then the politician is forced to resign. That’s more or less what happened to President Richard Nixon, for instance: He resigned under the threat of impeachment, as evidence of his role in the Watergate scandal emerged.
But that process depended on political parties being strong and disciplined enough to force politicians out.
“If you go back 40, 60, 80 years in any democracy, politicians seeking to get elected and sustain a political career depended so heavily on the political establishment that they had to conform to certain norms and policy parameters that the establishment imposed,” Steve Levitsky, the Harvard political scientist who co-wrote the book “How Democracies Die,” said in a recent interview.
In that kind of system, with political parties acting as the gatekeepers of media attention, public messaging and fund-raising, a politician’s career would likely be over long before an indictment landed.
In the 21st century, political parties are much weaker and can’t always play that role. Thanks to the internet and social media, politicians can speak to voters directly — and raise money off them — leaving parties with far less influence on politicians’ behavior, Mr. Levitsky said. That’s especially true in systems with direct elections, like the United States, where parties already had less power than in parliamentary democracies.
So violating taboos is no longer as likely to be career-ending as it once was — and in some cases, it can even be career-making. For charismatic politicians with a populist bent — like Mr. Trump, Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, Narendra Modi of India and Silvio Berlusconi of Italy, offending the establishment was part of the pitch to voters: evidence of a politician’s independence and courage to confront elites.
That might help to explain why Mr. Trump has remained so popular with many voters, despite the criminal charges against him. A recent Times/Siena poll found that his support within his core “MAGA base” remains exceptionally strong.
That base isn’t a majority of American voters. But it is a large enough portion of Republican voters — an estimated 37 percent — that it would be very difficult for any other primary candidate to beat Mr. Trump if the rest of the field remains divided. And the party is probably not strong enough to unify behind another candidate.
The limits of ‘islands of honesty’
When parties struggle to police their members, independent prosecutors can be an important check on abuses of power — “islands of honesty,” as a researcher once called them. In extreme cases, like when institutional corruption is pervasive, outside prosecutors can be the only way to disrupt cycles of bribery and theft.
But while prosecutions can address specific crimes, they cannot strengthen parties or institutions — and sometimes they can have the opposite effect, worsening or prolonging conflicts.
The rule of law, including holding leaders accountable for wrongdoing, is a foundational element of liberal democracy. Particularly when, as in the case of both Mr. Trump and Mr. Bolsonaro, the crimes in question involve subverting democracy itself.
But in highly polarized political systems, indicted politicians can recast prosecutions as attempts to thwart the will of the people — another foundational element of democracy. That can undermine faith in the legitimacy of the courts and political system, which can be used to justify attempts to interfere with them, fueling further cycles of political crisis or even violence.
Although the indictment against Mr. Trump plainly accused him of trying to subvert the will of a majority of voters in 2020, he and his supporters have accused prosecutors of engaging in a politically motivated “witch hunt.” The authorities, in turn, have taken their messages seriously enough to provide a security detail to the special counsel overseeing the investigation.
And sometimes, prosecutions can create opportunities in politics for unpredictable players.
In the early 1990s, for instance, Italy’s national “clean hands” investigation revealed wide-ranging corruption infecting businesses, public works and politics, and found that major political parties were largely financed by bribes. In the wake of the scandal, Italy’s established parties collapsed.
But rather than forcing political parties to clean up their acts, the prosecutions simply became part of a longer, bigger sequence of political crises.
“The party system that was the anchor of the democratic regime in the postwar period basically crumbled,” Ken Roberts, a Cornell University political scientist, told me. “What you end up with is a political vacuum that gets filled by a populist outsider in Berlusconi.”
Mr. Berlusconi eventually faced criminal charges himself. He also became Italy’s dominant leader over three decades, presiding over several coalition governments.
Something similar happened in Brazil after the Carwash corruption investigation of the 2010s. Mainstream parties, implicated in the scandal, fell apart. In the aftermath, an obscure lawmaker — Mr. Bolsonaro — won the presidency on a far-right populist platform. He now faces criminal charges too, relating to baseless claims of electoral fraud and his own failed re-election bid.
Those are extreme examples, involving allegations of widespread corruption. While the United States does not have a comparable scandal, the Republican Party remains weak and deeply divided.
The charges against Mr. Trump have the potential to widen the divisions and make it weaker still. But his continued popularity suggests he is the Republican politician most likely to flourish in any subsequent political vacuum.
And of course there is also a long history of leaders trying to cling to power to maintain immunity from criminal charges. Mr. Berlusconi was one, passing an immunity law to shield himself from prosecution. (A court later overturned it).
In the United States, sitting presidents are immune from prosecution, and have the power to pardon people accused or convicted of federal crimes. Mr. Trump’s chances of re-election are difficult to estimate this far out. But the Times/Siena poll found that he and President Biden are effectively tied.
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