It could happen

Never same again

Charging Donald Trump has had far-right Republicans reaching for their guns. Will he go down? Daniel Lazare is sure: maybe yes, maybe no

America’s constitutional crisis has been growing for a generation, but there is no doubt that last week’s federal indictment, charging Donald Trump with violations of the 1917 Espionage Act, is kicking it up to a whole new level.

“We have now reached a war phase,” tweeted Andy Biggs, a Republican congressman from Arizona who heads the House Freedom Caucus and is a true-blue believer that Joe Biden stole the 2020 election. “This is a perimeter probe from the oppressors,” added Republican Congressman Clay Higgins, an ex-police captain from Louisiana, who made a name for himself with a series of tough-talking videos about hunting down black “thugs”.1

Kari Lake, a fiery ex-Republican candidate for governor of Arizona, added:

If you want to get to president Trump, you’re going to have to go through me and 75 million Americans just like me. And most of us are card-carrying members of the [National Rifle Association]. That’s not a threat - that’s a public service announcement.

Finally, there was Trump himself - bloodied, but unbowed, as he stood before 3,000 cheering Republicans in Georgia just two days after the indictment was announced: “Together, we stand up to the globalists, we stand up to Marxists, we stand up to the RINOs [Republicans in name only] ... We stand up to the open-borders fanatics, the radical-left Democrats, and their lawless partisan prosecutors ...” He added:

From the beginning, our America First agenda has been an existential threat to the rotten political class that gets rich and powerful at your expense, erasing our borders, cheating on elections, exporting our jobs, and squandering our blood and treasure on endless foreign wars ... they’ve launched one hoax and witch-hunt after another to try and stop our movement and thwart the will of the American people.

Plainly, the June 8 indictment is yet another dirty trick aimed at stifling the popular will.

It was an eruption of rhetorical violence unprecedented since “the great secession winter of 1860-61,” to quote historian Henry Adams. And it is all too likely to lead to real violence, as America continues coming apart at the seams.

Get Trump?

But are the charges truly an act of war? Or are they something that Trump and his movement are trying to elevate into a casus belli in an attempt to undermine the rule of law? The problem is that America’s superannuated constitutional system is in such tatters after decades of gridlock that it is hard to know.

Trump is as much to blame as anyone, since his attempted coup d’état two and a half years ago brought the entire system to the brink. But Democrats are also to blame since they spent the previous four years trying to mobilise the full power of the state in a plain-as-day effort to drive him out of office.

The big question is whether the latest indictment is an honest attempt to bring an accused malefactor to justice or a continuation of the same old ‘get Trump’ effort.

Rachel Maddow, an MSNBC TV host who has made a career out of Trump-bashing, let the cat out of the bag when she told viewers a few hours after the indictment:

You have to wonder if the justice department is considering whether there is some political solution to this criminal problem, whether part of the issue here is not just that Trump has committed crimes, but that Trump has committed crimes and plans on being back in the White House. Do they consider as part of a potential plea offer something that would proscribe him … from running for office again?2

In other words, is the goal to prosecute Trump or use the threat of prosecution to force him to withdraw, now that he is preparing another White House bid in 2024? Dems insist that it is not, but Republicans would not trust them to tell the time of day - which is why so many of them are now reaching for their guns.

If national security is meanwhile at the centre of the storm, it is because the United States is facing a crisis that is simultaneously imperial and constitutional.

With one war on its hands in Ukraine, another brewing in the western Pacific and a struggle for control continuing in the oil-rich Persian Gulf, the US has more on its plate, internationally speaking, than it can possibly handle. It is a prime example of the “imperial overstretch” that Paul Kennedy described so eloquently in his classic study, The rise and fall of the great powers, in 1987 - and the strain from all that overreaching is clearly taking a toll.

At the same time, America is facing an unparalleled structural crisis at home. The reason is simple: along with Saudi Arabia, Brunei and maybe even the United Kingdom if you squint hard enough, the US is one of the most retrograde political structures on earth. The US constitution is a museum piece festooned with 18th century relics: a Senate that gives the same weight to underpopulated ‘rotten boroughs’ like Wyoming and Vermont that it does to urban giants like California and New York; an Electoral College that is also heavily biased in favour of rural whites; a heavily-gerrymandered House of Representatives; and a hard-right Supreme Court intent on rolling back all the gains of the 1960s and after.

Add to that endemic corruption, baked-in racial inequities, the worst economic polarisation in the advanced industrial world, and a dysfunctional amending clause that effectively rules out constitutional reform - the wonder is not that America is exploding, but that it has taken so long.

Then there is the national-security state - a mini-empire in itself. The US has a bigger defence budget than the next 10 countries combined. It has 17 intelligence agencies dedicated to sniffing out foreign threats. It has dozens of think tanks, many bankrolled by the military-industrial complex, whose speciality is zeroing in on Russia and China and the threat they pose to US hegemony. And it has an endlessly gullible press corps whose mission to amplify and embellish whatever paranoid ravings the foreign-policy establishment manages to come up with.

This is where Trump comes in. Americans had plenty of reasons to despise Trump when he took to the campaign trail in mid-2015: eg, his racism, his sexism, his chest-thumping nationalism, etc. But nothing resonated with the foreign-policy establishment like his failure to toe the line on national security. Alarmed when he refused to condemn Russian intervention in Syria in September 2015, Democrats soon shifted into emergency mode. By April 2016, Politico was calling him “the Kremlin’s candidate”. By May, neocon doyen Robert Kagan was lambasting him for his embrace of “Putinism”. When Trump jokingly called on Russia in July “to find the 30,000 [Hillary Clinton] emails that are missing”, reporters collectively decided that they had a “Manchurian candidate” on their hands - someone put in place to do the Kremlin’s bidding.

Every week saw a sensational new headline. The Kremlin was blackmailing Trump with a secret sex tape! Trump Tower in New York was communicating with a Moscow bank via a secret server! Russian oligarchs were paying off a key Trump advisor!

And so on. It was all either untrue or exaggerated beyond recognition. The real collusion was not between Trump and Putin, but among Democrats, the ‘intelligence community’ and an anti-Trump press. Trump was still a bigot. But, given the role that progressivism plays with regard to American ‘human rights’ imperialism, his intolerance went hand in hand with hostility to foreign interventionism. His opposition was entirely from the right.

Not that the foreign-policy establishment gave a damn. All it knew is that Trump opposed its pro-war plans with regard to Russia, so it was determined to drive him out of office.

Full of holes

Thus, the frenzy went on and on. Years later, the big question is whether the get-Trump campaign has finally succeeded with the latest indictment or whether it will flop too. The answer is unequivocal: maybe yes, maybe no.

On one hand, there is no question that the new charges are more serious than the half-baked Stormy Daniels indictment that Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg handed down in March. Conservative legal commentators who dismissed the Bragg indictment out of hand are now taken aback by the evidence that special federal prosecutor Jack Smith has assembled. George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley says the new indictment “hits below the waterline”, while Bill Barr, Trump’s own attorney general during his last two years in office, observes: “If half of it is true, then he’s toast. It’s a very detailed indictment, and it’s very, very damning.”

But not all are convinced. One of them is Alan Dershowitz, the retired Harvard law professor who represented Trump during his first impeachment trial and who is a ubiquitous presence on Murdoch-owned Fox News. Dershowitz is someone every good leftist loves to despise due to his knee-jerk, pro-Zionist views. But he is undeniably smart, and his views about the latest ‘get Trump’ effort may be perceptive.

Basically, what he says is that photos of document boxes piled up in Trump’s bathroom may not matter in the end, because Trump’s attorneys will argue that they are covered by the 1978 Presidential Records Act, which allows a president to claim diaries, notes and other personal jottings as private property. This is highly debatable, to say the least, since some of the documents appear to be intelligence reports that Trump did not prepare himself. But even worse from Trump’s point of view, Dershowitz goes on, is a recording showing him displaying a military document that he describes as “highly confidential” in an interview taped at Mar-a-Lago in mid-2021. “Now maybe he didn’t actually allow the person to read it,” Dershowitz said. “But that tape recording ... that’s a damning piece of evidence.”

Still, the indictment does not identify the document that Trump supposedly waved about, so it is unclear whether it is classified evidence covered by the Espionage Act. This may provide him with an out. But something else may provide him with an out as well: the question of selective prosecution. After all, the department of justice has not gone after Mike Pence and Joe Biden - at least not so far - even though both were caught with secret documents left over from their days as vice-president (Biden stored some of his documents in a super-unsecured location in his garage next to his prized Corvette). To be sure, Pence and Biden returned the papers as soon as the lapse was discovered, whereas Trump hemmed and hawed, holding some papers back and at one point instructing his attorney to lie, according to the indictment.

But, while that does not look good, there is also the Hillary Clinton problem to consider: ie, the fact that she destroyed 33,000 emails, some of which contained classified material, after coming under scrutiny for using a private email account for official business while serving as Barack Obama’s secretary of state. If Clinton got off with a reprimand, why is Trump facing charges that could land him in prison for the rest of his life?

Referring to special prosecutor Jack Smith, Dershowitz told Fox News:

He was assigned only one job: to get Trump. So ... let’s assume hypothetically that a Democratic prosecutor announces in advance, ‘I’m only going to investigate Republicans’, and then the investigation produces some evidence of crime. Is that acceptable in America?3

Needless to say, Republicans will answer with a resounding no.

This is not to say that Trump should walk. Neither is it to say that the 1917 Espionage Act - the same law used to prosecute Eugene V Debs and now Julian Assange - should be enforced to the hilt. Obviously, Marxists have zero interest in protecting bourgeois state secrets.

But it is to say that the new indictment contains enough holes to ensure that the constitutional breakdown will intensify, as the battle of Donald Trump versus the national-security state turns white-hot. The ‘deep state’ is fighting for its life against a Republican candidate who is vowing to rip it to shreds if he regains the presidency in 2024.

Although no-one can say for sure what will happen if he does, it is a sure bet that the American political structure will never be the same.

  1. www.youtube.com/watch?v=m1lc7i7BaG8&t=148s.↩︎

  2. www.foxnews.com/media/rachel-maddow-suggests-doj-quid-pro-quo-with-trump-drop-charges-leaves-2024-race.↩︎

  3. www.foxnews.com/media/alan-dershowitz-slams-trump-indictment-shares-one-damning-piece-evidence-doj-case.↩︎