Are former US president Donald Trump’s indictments putting American democracy on trial? Many certainly seem to think so.
Depending on who you ask, it doesn’t much matter what the verdict will be. Trump ending up behind bars, in the White House, or anywhere in between points to the same end game: America’s government in cinders.
As exemplified by the resilience of democratic institutions in the wake of the January 6 attack on the Capitol, there’s reason to think such predictions are too dire.
Still, the fact that some critics are clamouring for Trump to be barred from running for president altogether — as a result of section three of the 14th Amendment, which disqualifies candidates from holding public office who “engaged in insurrection or rebellion” against the US — only adds to the high-stakes political drama.
Here are five “stress tests” to look out for over the coming months to see how the US democratic system is coping.
1) Shifts in public opinion
To date, the public’s response has diverged along partisan lines. Approximately 80% of Republicans believe the Georgia indictment over election-rigging is politically motivated, compared to about 20% of Democrats.
Numbers look similar for the two justice department cases, over the January 6 riot and the retention of classified documents, as well as the New York City case in which Trump is charged with making illicit “hush money” payments. Trump has denied all charges.
Americans currently assess the cases largely through the blinders of partisan media. Yet a sign of a healthy democracy is that, as the hearings progress and the two sides advance their arguments, views should shift — for or against Trump.
If nothing budges public opinion, it signals that Americans either aren’t paying attention, or they’re so ensconced in partisan echo chambers that they’re inured to the facts. Either scenario — disengagement or blind partisanship — doesn’t bode well for voters placing justice above politics.
2) What Biden says
So far, Biden has refused to weigh in on Trump’s indictments. Substantively, this is the right thing to do. It’s also smart politics. Trump’s leverage relies on complaining that he’s the victim of a partisan vendetta by the “Biden justice department”.
Even a hint of Biden leaning on US attorney general Merrick Garland — and, by extension, special counsel Jack Smith — would give critics more fodder to say he’s trying to knock out his most likely opponent in 2024.
However, as Biden kicks off his campaign Trump’s malfeasance will be a core part of his pitch to voters. Biden has telegraphed that his 2024 message will be that democracy itself is “at stake”.
The question is how Biden will criticise Trump for taking an axe to democratic norms without seeming like he’s speaking in coded language to prosecutors.
3) How far Trump goes
Increasingly, Trump’s legal and campaign strategies are morphing into one. Because he’s trying his cases in the court of public opinion, Trump has, despite warnings, taken to social media to rail against what he claims is a justice system that’s out to get him.
In August, for example, Trump unleashed on his platform, Truth Social: “IF YOU GO AFTER ME, I’M COMING AFTER YOU!”
Trump threatened Georgia lieutenant governor Geoff Duncan that he “shouldn’t” testify in his Georgia case.
Trump doesn’t lose his first amendment, constitutionally protected right to free speech just because he’s on trial. But neither can he use his megaphone to taint potential jurists and to intimidate witnesses and judges.
The big question is not only how long a leash Trump will formally have to vent his views, but whether penalties will actually be enforced if, and — more likely — when he continues to transgress the rules.
4) Responses by fellow Republicans
Trump’s detractors, including within the Republican party, say that US democracy can’t thrive when roughly half its politicians deny overt wrongdoing.
At the first Republican presidential debate, for example, ex-New Jersey governor Chris Christie offered this plea to his party: “Whether or not you believe that the criminal charges are right or wrong, [Trump’s] conduct is beneath the office of President of the United States.”
A telling sign will be whether other Republican figures are willing to denounce Trump’s behaviour.
In Congress, for example, Rep. Don Bacon said, “We can’t just deny what President Trump did was wrong. It’s clear as day wrong.” Sen. Lisa Murkowski labeled the indictment a “pretty comprehensive condemnation of the president’s actions”.
Since then, criticism has mostly petered out, and even Trump’s presidential rivals have lined up to defend him. Whether that pendulum swings back could determine if many right-leaning voters continue to view the Trump indictments solely through a partisan lens.
5) Threats of political violence
Following the Capitol insurrection, polls showed worryingly high levels of support for political violence, with as many as 30% of Republicans believing that taking up arms for a political cause could be justified.
Trump’s rhetoric has done nothing to tamp down these impulses. Even before his first indictment, for example, Trump cautioned that a prosecution against him would usher in “potential death and destruction”.
Trump’s followers have also dialled up the menacing language.
Former Arizona governor candidate Kari Lake, for instance, declared: “If you want to get to President Trump, you’re going to have to go through me and you’re going to have to go through 75 million Americans just like me, and I’m going to tell you … most of us are card-carrying members of the NRA [National Rifle Association].”
One potentially reassuring sign is that, despite the extreme reaction that Trump supporters displayed to his first indictment, protests have gone on with a whimper, not a bang. The question is whether their response will kick into overdrive once more court dates are set.
Even if not on the scale of January 6, escalations in advocacy of political violence would prove the ultimate stressor to US democracy.
Thomas Gift is an Associate Professor and Director of the Centre on US Politics, UCL. This first appeared in the Conversation.