Only politics, not the law, can stop Donald Trump

On reading the latest criminal indictment of Donald Trump, this one for trying to overthrow a duly elected president, certain feelings return with renewed power, including that stomach-churning mix of wonder, dismay and exhaustion at the volume and absurdity of his lies about the 2020 election. But a surprising new sentiment stirs as well: nostalgia. American politics seemed so much healthier back then.

After all, in a political test without precedent since the civil war, the centre held. In fact, the right held. Mr Trump’s vice-president, Mike Pence, stood up to him, as did others within the White House. Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader in the House, said Mr Trump “bears responsibility” for the attack on the Capitol by “mob rioters”. That was a nice moment, in retrospect.

Even more inspiring, in states such as Arizona, Georgia, Michigan and Pennsylvania, unfamous Republican officials honoured their own integrity, without recourse to any other authority, and rebuffed the pleas and threats of a president they believed in. “Nobody wanted him to win more than me,” said Lee Chatfield, the speaker of the House in Michigan, in a statement quoted in the indictment, handed down on August 1st. “But I love our republic, too. I can’t fathom risking our norms, our traditions and institutions.” He added, “I fear we’d lose our country forever.”

Three years on, Mr Trump is in a stronger position, with a plausible path back to the White House—not despite his efforts to overturn the last election but because of them. He stuck to his lies, betting on his great gift for preying on others’ baser qualities. Even before Jack Smith, the special counsel investigating Mr Trump, brought the new charges, Mr McCarthy was trying to discredit them as an effort by Joe Biden to “weaponise government”.

On news of the indictment, Tucker Carlson’s replacement at Fox News, Jesse Watters, tweeted, “This is all politics and very well co-ordinated.” He was alleging a plot by Mr Biden to distract people from investigations into his son Hunter, but he was more aptly describing a plot by Mr Trump, who made his talking-points clear: that this prosecution is politically corrupt; that his claims were free speech protected by the Bill of Rights; and that, in any event, he was not lying, because he believed the election was stolen—because, of course, as he still insists, it was. He may need only to persuade one juror that he believes that, and he has sold plenty of shoddy products before. He is already at work degrading faith in the law as he previously degraded faith in the electoral system.

Mr Trump’s political strategy is his legal strategy, and vice versa. They reinforce each other by reinforcing delusions about Mr Trump that most Republicans believe, according to polls, including that he is the victim of conspirators out to protect their privileges from his insurgent politics. Mr Trump’s climb into his dominant position in the Republican field began in late March after his first indictment, on business-fraud charges in Manhattan.

The multiplying felony counts against him—78 so far, with more probably coming—are consuming his campaign funds, and Democrats hope they will distract him from the campaign trail. This is wishful thinking. In 2024 the Trump trials will be the trail. They will focus attention on him and his message of fearless challenge in the face of persecution.

What might break the spell? A conviction could shake even some Republican confidence that Mr Trump deserves to hold office again. But, as has been the case since Mr Trump’s political rise began, the surest protection against his return to the White House would be for other Republican leaders to tell the truth, as those state officials did after the 2020 election.

Some of Mr Trump’s long-shot rivals for the Republican nomination said the indictment showed Mr Trump was unfit for office. “Anyone who puts himself over the constitution should never be president of the United States,” Mr Pence said. But others fell in line or tried to sidestep the substance of the charges. Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, did the critical-race theorists proud by attacking the interlocking power structures oppressing Mr Trump. “Washington DC is a ‘swamp’ and it is unfair to have to stand trial before a jury that is reflective of the swamp mentality,” he wrote on Twitter. He called for systemic reform so Americans could move cases from Washington to their “home districts”.

The real reckoning ahead

These Republicans are making the same mistake as many Democrats in hoping that the legal system will, in the end, stop Mr Trump. After the attack on the Capitol, Mitch McConnell, then as now the Senate Republican leader, held Mr Trump “practically and morally responsible”. But he voted to acquit Mr Trump on the impeachment charge of inciting an insurrection, saying the matter was better left to the justice system. That was a fateful choice. Outsourcing the problem of Donald Trump has simply exposed more American institutions to his corrosive power.

Democrats have a tough duty to discharge, as well. They should be as zealous as Republicans in demanding rigorous investigation of Hunter Biden’s business dealings. No evidence has surfaced suggesting President Biden profited from his son’s trading on the family name, and there is no moral equivalence between the younger Biden’s influence peddling, or illusion-of-influence peddling, and Mr Trump’s attempts to subvert democracy. But excusing Hunter Biden’s ugly practices and minimising his lawbreaking serve Mr Trump’s agenda by eroding faith in the impartial application of justice.

Mr Smith’s spare statement to the public on August 1st was a bracing reminder of all that was vulnerable on January 6th, and of the bravery of the law-enforcement officials who protected it. “They defended the very institutions and principles that define the United States,” he said. Now the rule of law is at stake, too, and it is up to politics to come to the rescue.