US democracy and a tale of two trials

US democracy and a tale of two trials

US democracy and a tale of two trials
Donald Trump greets supporters after a campaign event Tuesday, June 18, 2024, in Racine, Wisconsin. (AP Photo)
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In recent years, the world has faced many events to which the adjective “unprecedented” has been frequently and correctly attached: from a global pandemic to a member of the UN Security Council illegally invading a neighbor and global warming reaching a new height. However, in the next few months, much of our attention will turn to the US presidential election — and there too the unprecedented nature of events rules supreme.

For the first time, both candidates are looking to be elected for a second term; their combined age is the highest of any previous pair of candidates; and, in addition, criminal trials are dominating much of the political debate, despite the enormous challenges confronting the country domestically and internationally. And if Donald Trump wins, he will become the first American president to be a convict. For now, he holds the unenviable record of being the first former president to be convicted of felony crimes and he might even have to run the country from behind bars.

As far as the two court cases are concerned, there is a marked difference between them. In the case of President Joe Biden, he has not been suspected, let alone charged with any offence, but his son Hunter was convicted last week in a federal court on three felony counts relating to buying a handgun while being a crack cocaine user and lying about that. The president’s support of his son, especially considering the tragic history of their family, is an understandable fatherly act that should be held in his favor and not used against him.

In contrast, Trump’s recent conviction on 34 counts of falsification of business records in the first degree, in a scheme to illegally influence the 2016 election through a hush money payment to an adult film actress, is a legal stain on his reputation that should have excluded him from running for the highest office in the country. This is only one of four criminal cases against him, with the remaining three trials yet to commence.

Trump has also been embroiled in civil cases relating to his business empire; and he was found liable for sexual abuse by a civil court last year. One wonders how he has time to focus on his election campaign or how he would run the country should he win the trust of the people for another term. More disturbing is why millions of law-abiding citizens might put their faith in someone with his record.

During this unusual presidential race, these trials are an unfortunate distraction from the real issues that are going to determine the lives of Americans over the next four years, as well as the lives of many others across the globe. Nevertheless, they are also a symptom of America’s malaise and the profound rupture in its society. This gives some insight into the source of support among Republicans for a candidate who will represent almost anything that goes against the values of the vast majority of those who vote for him. In addition, social media platforms have made it extremely easy to drive a wedge between elements of society and stoke distrust through spreading disinformation, making it difficult to discern what is truth and what is a lie.

Trump is a product of our times, whereby reality is in the eye of the beholder. Research shows that polarization is ingrained in American society, creating a perfect environment for the former president to thrive on. Moreover, supporters of both Democrats and Republicans perceive their rival supporters in an extremely negative light, as much as they do the party leaders. This split society translates to a rigid, tribal voting pattern, with little switching of support from one party to another. Instead of judging candidates by their policies and personalities, they support them according to what side of the political map they are on, while developing hostile emotions toward the rival party.

A poll conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago has revealed that an overwhelming majority of Democrats and Republicans agree on some fundamental values, among them accountable government, fair and equal application of the rule of law, personal responsibility and accountability for one’s actions, and respect and compassion across differences. Those are honorable values that should be the basis for a healthy society, but in the same breath, despite both sides of the political map supporting these values, they are highly skeptical of each other. And how many of these values can one associate with Trump?

During this unusual presidential race, these trials are an unfortunate distraction from the real issues.

Yossi Mekelberg

How could supporters of the Republican Party not be shocked and dismayed by Trump’s rebuff of the last presidential election result or the attack on Capitol Hill — surely they should be. Apparently not, in their current state of mind: for them, the Democrats and President Biden are not rivals but enemies. Furthermore, Republicans are more conservative in their value system, in which the family is at the center of life and society, and yet Trump is hardly a proponent of this and still won the primaries without breaking sweat. Instead of traditional values, he plays on their fear of migrants by offering them fantasy solutions that are unworkable but resonate with their emotions rather than their reason.

Ironically, when voters are polled on the issues that concern them most, one of their top answers is that Democrats and Republicans should work together, yet by supporting Trump and some of his loyalists in Congress, they are bound to achieve only partisanship and discord: the exact opposite. To explain the rise of Trumpian populism, much can be attributed to the increasing number of Americans who feel left behind and disenfranchised; levels of income and wealth inequality are higher in the US than in almost any other developed country and are rising. It is a very wealthy country, yet there are far too many people who find it difficult to make ends meet. In Trump, who manages to fashion himself as their champion, they look for salvation, while his record belies this and shows that he is clearly more concerned with the super-rich, not those who face daily economic struggle.

Few believed that Trump would win the election back in 2016 and, considering his first term, it is almost inconceivable that the great American people will renew his mandate. This might indeed appear to be a logical conclusion, but logic is something that is threatening to desert America’s current social and political environment.

  • Yossi Mekelberg is a professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the Middle East and North Africa Program at international affairs think tank Chatham House. X: @YMekelberg 
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