Trump’s arrest adds fuel to fire in hyperpolarised US
It's not just the Democrats in the US who are looking longingly at former US President Donald Trump's arrest. A substantial number of Republican Party supporters are also hoping Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg will be able to do what everybody else has been unable to do till now: Put the flamboyant former president behind bars and remove his disruptive and destructive presence from US politics once and for all.
Well, good luck with that.
Trump's arrest, ironically, has added rocket fuel to his incendiary campaign to win the Republican nomination for the 2024 presidential elections. Trump is playing the victim card for all it's worth, and his detractors are beginning to realise that Trump isn't going anywhere soon.
Heavens knows there is a great deal to dislike about arguably one of the most outrè political figures in the Western world. Most politicians play fast and loose with facts, but Trump is in a class all by himself. What is far worse, Trump's uninhibited race-baiting, xenophobia and all-round coarse, pugilistic fact-free diatribes have done permanent damage to US political discourse. Racism, meanspirited demonisation of political opponents, once implicit in dog whistles, are now bandied about with a bullhorn.
Porn star, hush money payment through thuggish hatchet man and felon Michael Cohen, covering up of salacious stories in the gaudy periodical National Enquirer – the case against Trump has all the hallmarks of a tawdry tabloid scandal. Herein lies the case's weakness.
Trump has forced the US to confront a fraught political dilemma: How to balance the need to go after an ex-president suspected of serious legal malfeasance against the risk of opening up a Pandora's box of frivolous lawsuits against political enemies.
The arrest and attempted conviction of a prominent political figure is a portentous, serious matter. The case against Trump is sordid, but does it rise to the level of a crime? Some legal analysts – not all of them Trump supporters – are saying the charge should more appropriately be a misdemeanour.
There are several consequences that follow from this. The first, evident from the cries of outrage of Republicans, is that all of this can be presented as a political witch-hunt. The weaker the case, the more emboldened they are. The other development is that the case may taint other, more substantive efforts to bring Trump to book. A grand jury investigation by Fani Willis, the district attorney of Atlanta's Fulton County, accuses Trump of trying to tamper with the 2020 presidential elections where he was caught on phone asking Georgia elections chief Brad Raffensperger to "find" votes to overturn Biden's impending victory in the state.
Trump has forced the US to confront a fraught political dilemma: How to balance the need to go after an ex-president suspected of serious legal malfeasance against the risk of opening up a Pandora's box of frivolous lawsuits against political enemies. The Republican attempts of congressional investigations against Democratic enemies provide a foretaste of that – though the fact that they are not making much headway provides some measure of assurance that frivolous attempts will often fall by the wayside.
The immediate aftermath of Trump's arrest brings the former president back to the place he likes best – the centre of all attention. Now, doubtless to his utter delight, it's all about Trump.
As the campaign for US presidential elections is about to begin in earnest, we are back to square one. As the US baseball star Yogi Berra once said: "It's déjà vu all over again."
In 2015, when Trump stepped down the escalator of Trump Tower in Manhattan to announce his presidential campaign, Democrats were delighted and the Republican establishment was confident. This preposterous political arriviste, everyone was sure, was about to get his comeuppance. (A mea culpa is in order here: even I had predicted a Hillary Clinton victory.)
Trump, of course, had the last laugh. There is a cautionary tale in all this, as is evident in the media circus that is beginning to surround him following the news of his arrest.
While it remains to be seen if Trump will actually be convicted, there is no question that the arrest has made Trump's candidacy for the Republican nomination virtually unassailable. Before the arrest, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis was the blue-eyed boy of Republicans keen to see the last of Trump. DeSantis hasn't thrown his hat in the ring yet, but his presidential ambition is one of the worst kept secrets in US politics. With an ability to out-Trump in shrill partisanship and a commanding performance in Florida's gubernatorial elections, his star shone brightly for a while. Polls of Republican voters showed him outperforming Trump. Soon, however, Trump's double-digit lead reasserted itself and Trump now rules supreme.
The arrest and the attendant political outrage of Trump partisans is likely to add a fillip to Trump's support. Even Trump detractors in the Republican Party – DeSantis included – have been obliged to castigate Trump's arrest.
Anybody wishing to topple Trump within the Republican Party faces a formidable task. For a Republican there is the daunting math of keeping Trump supporters on his/her side while wooing those tired or disaffected. Now Trump says that he is the target of a political witch-hunt. How do you agree while seeking to topple him? That's a needle that is impossible to thread.
Some have noted the noticeable lack of public outrage of Trump supporters, but I would not read too much into it. The underlying challenge remains. For decades, the Republican Party has championed the politics of white grievance and outrage, casting political differences not so much as matters of policy rather than an existential battle against the evil Democrats – and thrown in the establishment and the media into the same category. The right-wing media industrial complex, led by Fox News and its ilk, merrily fanned the flames and laughed all the way to the bank. Media mogul Rupert Murdoch, the éminence grise of parts of right-wing US media, has soured on Trump, but the ratings gods demand he change his mind fast – and signs are that Fox News is doing exactly that.
For decades, the Republicans style of take-no-prisoners, hate-filled partisan politics yielded considerable political dividends. Then Trump came along and made this politics his very own. The result has been an even more toxic brand of partisan politics that has given rise to a party too driven by hatred of the perceived control of the liberal establishment to engage substantively in policy or governance.
Republicans are locked in a Faustian embrace with Trump, and the arrest is likely to make that embrace tighter.
Ashfaque Swapan is a writer and editor based in Atlanta, US.