Indicting the System That Bred Trumpism

Donald Trump has now been indicted for trying to destroy the peaceful transfer of power, the essence of constitutional democracy. And he did it in plain view. The details have been well known, at least since the hearings of the January 6th Committee. Indeed, the attempted coup played out on live television.

These indictments and the trials that follow are unlikely to weaken Trump’s support among his base. If anything, they will make him more of a martyr.

Given that solid support, don’t expect a groundswell of more than a few Republicans disavowing Trump. Ron DeSantis, pathetically in character, responded not to the substance but by disparaging D.C. as a “swamp” where a defendant like Trump cannot get a fair trial.

How did American democracy reach a place where a comic-opera buffoon like Trump came to personify popular disaffections—to the point where 1 American in 3 doesn’t mind if he destroys it; and nearly 1 in 2 is considering voting for him again so that Trump can become an elected dictator?

More from Robert Kuttner

The Declaration of Independence asserts that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. The political science term for this consent is “legitimacy.” All of the creative provisions that the framers invented to check baser human instincts are impotent formalisms if governments lose legitimacy with the people.

Why has American democracy lost legitimacy to the point where a carnival fraud like Trump passes in some quarters as a savior? The story has three basic parts.

First, the system stopped serving ordinary working families, with the complicity of both parties. Most of the national wealth has gone to the very top. Factory towns have been decimated, creating breeding grounds for Trumpism. Instruments of working-class democracy—trade unions—have been all but crushed.

Second, capitalism has become far more concentrated and more corrupt. Money in turn has corrupted politics. Again, both parties are complicit. Both have lost legitimacy, as has the system as a whole.

The third part reflects the costs of belatedly reckoning with America’s original sin. As the civil rights revolution has been reversed by right-wing administrations, police, and courts, African Americans have become more militant about defending and advancing rights. Others such as LGBTQ people have also demanded rights. The economic backlash against declining life prospects has interacted poisonously with cultural resentments. Instead of resenting the billionaires, people are cued to resent “wokeism.”

In this tinderbox, Trump was the match. The blowtorch, actually. Corrupted capitalism helped Trump in yet another respect. It gave him a distorted megaphone from the debased worlds of corporate entertainment and social media.

As a classic fascist, Trump could play the role of charismatic avenger, leaving his supporters oblivious to the contradictions. (Hold on, isn’t Aryan Hitler short and dark?) Isn’t this populist billionaire in reality a shill for huge corporations? Isn’t this ally of Christian piety a serial abuser of women? Isn’t he more corrupt than the establishment he attacks? Whadda guy! More power to him!!

The indispensable Heather Cox Richardson writes today: “Such a prosecution will reaffirm the institutions of democracy … [D]oing it within the parameters of our legal system should reestablish the very institutions Trump loyalists are trying to undermine.”

But it will take more than this prosecution to destroy Trump. He will have to be destroyed politically. That will take a decisive presidential defeat in 2024, just for starters.

Joe Biden is likely to be re-elected, but it will take a miracle for him to win a landslide and to bring Democrats into control of both houses of Congress, to the point where Trumpism loses its potency. And it will be an even longer road back toward remedying the conditions that bred Trump.

We can cheer these overdue indictments, while recognizing that democracy is still hanging by a thread.

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