In yet another sign of the growing instability of US bourgeois politics, criminal charges have been filed against a former president for the first time in American history.
More fuel has been poured onto the dumpster fire of US politics. For the first time in American history, criminal charges have been filed against a former president of the United States. The fact that Trump is the current front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination sends the country even deeper into “unprecedented” and “uncharted” waters as the crisis of the regime intensifies.
After weeks of speculation and heightened security on New York City streets, a Manhattan grand jury indicted Trump on March 30, and he was arraigned on April 4. Unsurprisingly, Trump pleaded not guilty to all 34 charges. If convicted, he could face up to three years in prison, although sentencing would be at the court’s discretion, and no prison time is guaranteed. Even if he is convicted, he could run for and serve as president—although being in prison might complicate things somewhat.
Coming fast on the heels of a stream of “unprecedented” firsts—from the Covid crisis to the Ukraine War, Sanders’s campaigns to Trump’s victory, the BLM uprising to the 2020 electoral chaos and subsequent riot on January 6 at the Capitol—this is yet another sign of the growing instability of US bourgeois politics in the 2020s.
Charges leveled against Trump
Prosecutors allege that Trump repeatedly and fraudulently sought to undermine the integrity of an election by orchestrating an unlawful scheme to hide damaging information from the voting public. The charges stem from hush payments made to adult film actress Stormy Daniels, Playboy model Karen McDougal, and a Trump Tower doorman on the eve of the 2016 election. Each charge relates to a specific entry in the business records of the Trump Organization.
Trump’s former attorney and fixer, Michael Cohen, paid Daniels’s attorney $130,000 out of his own pocket to prevent her from revealing details about a 2006 affair with the then-presidential candidate. The Trump Organization later reimbursed Cohen $420,000 over 12 months, calling them “legal fees,” with Trump signing six of the monthly checks himself. In the case of McDougal, she received a payment of $150,000 on Trump’s behalf from American Media, Inc., while the doorman, who alleges that Trump fathered a child out of wedlock, received $30,000 from the same source.
All of these payments were effectively campaign donations intended to affect the outcome of a federal election. It is alleged that Trump knowingly falsified company documents, a state misdemeanor, to cover up another crime, unrecorded presidential campaign donations, thus, converting them into felonies. Whether or not Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg can win a conviction on such charges when he has no jurisdiction at the federal level will be tested in court.
For his part in the plot, Michael Cohen served 13.5 months in federal prison after pleading guilty in 2018 to federal charges of tax evasion, fraud, and campaign finance violations. During his defense, Cohen laid the blame squarely on Trump, and he is likely to be a key witness for the prosecution, despite being a convicted perjurer.
As sitting presidents cannot be indicted, the federal government closed the case on Trump during his term of office. However, then–Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance opened a state investigation into the falsification of company records, which was inherited by the newly elected D.A., Alvin Bragg, also a Democrat. Bragg seemed inclined to drop the whole thing, but after pressure in liberal circles mounted, he convened a grand jury and brought charges.
First-ever indictment against a former US president
After arriving at the New York courthouse in downtown Manhattan, Trump was formally arrested and fingerprinted before hearing the charges against him—a humiliating experience for someone obsessed with never being seen as a “loser”—though a politically useful one, from his point of view. The next in-person hearing in New York is not scheduled until December 4. If Trump’s attorneys cannot stop the case before then, we may see Trump put on trial, a process that could drag well into the 2024 presidential campaign.
Upon leaving the courthouse, Trump’s lead lawyer, Joe Tacopina, immediately began the spin campaign: “It’s shocking to me that a state prosecutor would try and prosecute something as thin as this and prosecute a violation of federal election laws when they’re state prosecutors, which further enhances the position we have taken all along that this is a political persecution, political prosecution, and the weaponization of the justice system which honestly makes me ill.”
As the adage goes, a grand jury would indict a ham sandwich. All that is needed for an indictment is a simple majority. But a unanimous decision is required to convict, and the jurors must be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime has been committed. The case against Trump is by no means a slam dunk, but it is unlikely the New York establishment would risk filing charges in such a high-profile case if they didn’t think they were on a solid footing.
If Trump is exonerated, it would further bolster his credentials among his supporters. But even if he is convicted, he would be seen by millions as a martyr, with his prophecy about political persecution and a rigged system coming true. In typical Trump fashion, he played the victim card, lashing out against the liberal establishment when the indictment was first announced:
“This is Political Persecution and Election Interference at the highest level in history … I believe this Witch-Hunt will backfire massively on Joe Biden. The American people realize exactly what the Radical Left Democrats are doing here. Everyone can see it. So our Movement, and our Party—united and strong—will first defeat Alvin Bragg, and then we will defeat Joe Biden, and we are going to throw every last one of these Crooked Democrats out of office so we can MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”
And, conveniently deflecting attention away from yet another revival of the gun control debate in the aftermath of the mass shooting in Nashville, Tucker Carlson commented that it’s “probably not the best time to give up your AR-15.”
After returning to Mar-a-Lago from the arraignment, Trump spoke to a small crowd of “USA”-chanting supporters: “The only crime that I have committed is to fearlessly defend our nation from those who seek to destroy it.” After referring to the “stolen” 2020 election and President Biden, he added that “our country is going to hell.”
The presiding judge, Juan Merchan, did not issue a gag order on Trump, but requested that both he and the prosecution tamp down the personal attacks. He added: “Please refrain from making comments or engaging in conduct that has the potential to incite violence, create civil unrest, or jeopardize the safety or well-being of any individuals.” True to form, however, Trump went straight into attack mode after the hearing, launching personal attacks on Judge Merchan and D.A. Bragg.
Trump has made a career of stymying investigations of all types. He has never before faced criminal charges, and even survived two presidential impeachments. After his panicked tweets about an imminent arrest on March 21 came to naught, he apparently believed the indictment would not come after all and even joked about “golden handcuffs.”
Given his lifelong success in evading consequences, he seems to have conflated public relations and social media with the law. But as Al Capone, John Gotti, and El Chapo all found out, the arm of the law is long, and even the luckiest of streaks eventually run out.
Unfortunately for Trump, the charges he faces in New York may be the least of his worries. According to insiders, an indictment for election interference in Georgia is likely in early May. And potential federal charges related to his role in the January 6 assault on the Capitol and his retention of classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago residence may yet be pending.
What is behind efforts to convict Trump?
As we have explained before, the various legal cases against Trump constitute an organic response by the more prudent representatives of capitalism to remove this “rogue element” as a political factor. Contrary to the ravings of some on the far right, this is not an Illuminati-esque conspiracy by the “deep state.” But there is clearly a push by Democratic partisans at different levels aimed at stopping Trump from winning a second term in the White House. Although Trump is a capitalist himself, his intransigent individualism is a liability, and the vast majority of his class wants to remove him from the political equation, including many in the GOP.
From the point of view of most of the ruling class, Trump’s term in office was a dangerous example of the American presidency gone haywire. Over and over again, he broke “the norms” and put his own interests above the interests of the system as a whole. This was particularly true regarding the transfer of power. The ruling class needs to show Trump and others who might consider this path that they will not tolerate such behavior.
The “justice” system regularly turns a blind eye to white-collar crimes like those Trump is accused of. Indeed, during his half-century long career in real estate, Trump no doubt committed many such crimes without ever facing any legal consequences. But now, an example must be made of him, as a warning to those who want to play the game but insist on defying the capitalists’ collective rules. This is not about “equality under the law,” as there is no such thing in a society divided into classes. This is about reminding the politicians—even a former president—who really runs the country.
As is well known, Trump has a hard core of do-or-die supporters who will back him no matter what. But 15 years after 2008, most Americans are tired of the constant instability of life under capitalism. Trump equals chaos, and for many, Trump’s latest legal woes may have been a tipping point. As CNN put it, this is merely the latest in “an exhausting saga… [pushing] the nation to the point of exhaustion and deepen[ing] its polarization.”
A poll conducted by CNN ahead of his arraignment found that 60% of Americans approve of the indictment, even though three-quarters said politics played at least some role, with 52% saying it played a major role.
In the run-up to the indictment, Trump warned of “potential death and destruction” if he were to be charged. After the George Floyd mass uprising and the Trumpite shenanigans on January 6, the state took no chances, and the 35,000-strong NYPD was heavily mobilized.
However, other than scattered threats of violence against Alvin Bragg and others closely involved in the prosecution, the authorities found nothing approximating the overt coordination of protests seen in the weeks before January 6. Over 1,000 people who entered the Capitol or breached its grounds on that day have been charged with crimes so far, which has had a deterring effect. As a result, some of Trump’s most virulent past supporters had no interest in rallying behind him this time.
According to the New York Times: “One person close to Mr. Trump, who asked not to be identified out of a desire not to anger him, said the former president was likely to be disappointed by the actual result of his call to protest. Most people, the person said, felt ‘bitten’ by the arrests after the January 6 riot, and Mr. Trump’s lack of assistance with financial aid.”
As a result, Jesse Kelly, a syndicated right-wing radio host, urged supporters to stay away from any protests, declaring that Trump’s abandonment of the January 6 rioters “is abuse of his followers and I despise it.” Ali Alexander, a key organizer of the “Stop the Steal” rallies that preceded the events at the Capitol, also discouraged supporters from going to New York, tweeting that “prudence is a virtue.” Even the fanatical conspiracy theorist Alex Jones declined to show up to support the Donald.
Ruling class between a rock and a hard place
However, even if the most zealous layers of his base did not mobilize, Trump still has an iron grip on significant swathes of the Republican rank and file. So, as it fights to reestablish control of the party, the establishment must balance carefully, and whether they like Trump or not, they have to snap to attention and pick a side.
Senator Ted Cruz called the indictment “a catastrophic escalation in the weaponization of the justice system.” Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy says he will investigate Alvin Bragg. And Florida Governor Ron DeSantis called the charges “un-American,” vowing that his state would not assist in extradition proceedings against his rival. The fact that Trump’s eight-point lead over DeSantis jumped to 26 points after the indictment might have played a part in his calculations.
Others, however, most notably Senate Republican Mitch McConnell, let Trump “twist in the wind” on the day he was arraigned and commented instead on Finland’s accession to NATO.
Any press may not always be good press, but the indictment has put Trump squarely in the headlines after a relatively low-visibility start to his 2024 campaign, and helped him raise $4 million within 24 hours. As Maggie Haberman of the New York Times put it, the indictment has become Trump’s running mate. And as one Republican pundit opined, the Democrats merely succeeded in handing Trump the Republican primary.
Some speculate that the Democrats actually want Trump to win the nomination. They believe Trump would be easier to beat in 2024 than a “Trumpism without Trump” candidate like DeSantis, who has less overt personal baggage. The Republican primaries and caucuses always tack further to the right, so candidates must appeal to the more rabid elements needed to win the nomination while looking ahead to winning swing voters in the so-called “center” in the general election.
And if Trump does win the nomination despite the forces arrayed against him, the Democrats will hope the distraction and negative press over this and other potential cases would shave off just enough votes to ensure them a margin of victory in the undemocratic Electoral College.
Such are the wild and wonderful twists and turns of American capitalism in its epoch of rotten-ripe decay, with unprecedented events and political crises lurking around every corner. The proceedings against Trump will serve as an accelerant in the “culture wars,” further intensifying the distorted polarization in American society. It will be used by both parties to cut across the class polarization that is organically emerging on the basis of the grinding economic crisis.
Many perilous streams are converging as we approach the 2024 elections, and with another economic crisis looming, the ruling class is between a rock and a hard place. Anything they do to reestablish economic equilibrium will upset the political and social equilibrium, and vice versa. In this context, having a narcissist sociopath as a viable presidential candidate is unhelpful for the regime, to say the least. And if this is their response to a right-wing billionaire defender of capitalism, imagine what they will do in the future to a class-independent candidate mobilizing the working class to fight for socialism.
Only socialism can beat Trumpism!
All of this further exacerbates the crisis of confidence in the institutions of bourgeois rule. In fact, only three in ten people polled feel the indictment “strengthens US democracy.” But getting Trump out of the picture will be easier said than done. Even if they succeed, it could unleash unforeseen and potentially even more disastrous consequences. Or, if Trump is scorned by his current party, who’s to say he wouldn’t launch an independent campaign, siphoning off swarms of disgruntled voters and eviscerating the Republican Party in the process?
Trump is utterly reactionary and an enemy of the working class, but Marxists must have no confidence whatsoever in bourgeois justice or the Democrats. Trumpism and liberalism are two sides of the same capitalist coin. We must not fall into the liberal cheerleading of those who proclaim this as a victory for “justice” and the “rule of law.” On paper, “no one is above the law.” But as every poor person knows, this dictum is applied very differently to those with wealth and power and those without.
It is the organic decline of American capitalism which has produced Trumpism in the first place. Unless and until that same system is overthrown, the polarization and chaos currently represented by this phenomenon will only continue and deepen.
The reason working-class issues are not front and center in the political debate today rests largely with the class-collaborationist labor leaders and the so-called “left.” Had they broken decisively with the Democrats and launched a mass, class-independent workers’ party in 2016 or earlier, the political landscape and national debate would be entirely different. Trump’s demagogic appeal to large numbers of angry working-class voters would be deeply undermined, and both capitalist parties would have their backs against the wall.
This is why we say once again: only socialism beats Trump and Trumpism! Only the socialist revolution and the coming to power of a workers’ government can lay the basis for a world of genuine equality and justice for all.