News outlets around the world have covered the recent indictment of former US President Donald J. Trump extensively. Prosecutors seek to prove that Trump violated campaign finance laws by directing Michael Cohen, his former lawyer, to make a hush-money payment to the adult film star Stormy Daniels during the 2016 presidential campaign. On April 4th, 2023, Trump was arraigned in a New York court, where the prosecutors spelled out 34 charges against him.
Trump is the first former president to be in the uncomfortable position of defendant in a criminal trial. Yet, some may think that this is just another “unprecedented event” in a presidency marked by the lack of precedents. Moreover, others are rushing to define these charges as a “charade” and a pointless exercise in politicized prosecution. Indeed, it was a “fairly standard arraignment hearing” even according to unsympathetic observers. However, these events may potentially mark the end of an epoch for US democracy.
Practically, the case is likely to skew public opinion for some time, potentially affecting the upcoming elections in 2024. Furthermore, it will be difficult to prove the charges, especially given that the grand jury elevated these misdemeanors to felonies. The prosecution decided to press these charges, potentially with the explicit political aim of weakening Republicans in 2024. Regardless of the prosecutors’ real intention, many reasonable elected officials may get this impression, throwing the US into “uncharted territory.” Should the suspicion of judicial meddling in the electoral process and politicized prosecution of antagonistic political leaders consolidate, the risk that the US may turn into an authoritarian political regime will only grow.
Crucially, political scientists spent the last 50 years clarifying the mechanisms that generate and support dictatorships. Admittedly, an elected leader’s authoritarian dictator requires more than just fear of politicized prosecution. Namely, this transformation needs both the right context and an adequate window of opportunity.
Unfortunately, the US and other advanced democracies are exhibiting symptoms of democratic decay. For a start, the weakening of once-revered institutions such as the Supreme Court, a faltering currency, and inflation. Not to mention widespread corruption and the electorate’s fragmentation into “tribes”.
Predictably, Trump’s indictment will not simply rally voters around the former president and enhance political polarization. Instead, it will strengthen many people’s mistrust in their ability to influence policy through voting or other democratic means.
Still, these are only the basic conditions of democratic deconsolidation, as academics call it. Even if they are in place, a dictatorship can only emerge if the political opportunity structure is adequate. This means that a specific reason or opportunity ought to emerge. And fearing the judicial attacks that would come from the opposition after relinquishing power is exactly one such opportunity.
Indeed, the academic literature clearly shows that the fear of prosecution leads to entrenched authoritarianism. For example, “prosecuting African leaders for crimes committed while in office” made “long-serving leaders and governments for life” more frequent. Indeed, some confirmed this finding across countries and continents using mathematical models and game theory.
Perhaps, this circumstantial evidence may not persuade everyone that the prosecution of former democratically elected leaders could lead to dictatorship. Yet, a consolidated, wealthy democracy’s leader is trying to steer the country in a more authoritarian direction right now.. Ostensibly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is on trial for bribery and should submit to the courts like any other Israeli. However, the defendant maintains that the charges are politically motivated and compared his indictment to a coup attempt. It doesn’t help that Netanyahu recently proposed reforms to the judiciary that have only further polarized Israel. Crucially, these attempts may change the nature of Israeli democracy for decades to come, entrenching the incumbent government.
Obviously, the US has yet to experience the degree of institutional district Israelis witnessed in the first months of 2023. Yet, the indictment of a former president and presidential candidate is a step in that direction. It remains unclear whether the US is heading toward an Israeli scenario. But we should be vigilant against it.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.