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The Politics of the Trump Trials

Now that Donald Trump has been charged with a wide array of federal crimes, the 2024 election cycle is destined to be dominated by high-profile trials. Though the prosecutors and judges will do everything they can to show procedural fairness, it will never be enough for the defense – or, perhaps, for the American public.

CHICAGO – For many Americans, Donald Trump’s mounting legal troubles confirm the deeply corrupt and repulsive character of the man. But there is a significant danger that the trials will help Trump rather than hurt him. As contests between the government and a loosely formed but powerful opposition group, they may come to be seen as political trials – and will play directly into the hands of Trump and his allies.

Though Trump is the first former US president to be indicted, political trials – trials in which legal proceedings are used to remove political opponents from power or prevent them from taking it – have a long and storied history of backfiring on their perpetrators. Charles I of England and Louis XVI of France lost their heads after such trials, but their descendants (for Louis XVI, via his brothers) went on to inherit the throne after periods of turmoil. Trials that were supposed to justify the rule of revolutionaries by publicizing the kings’ repellent behavior ultimately generated sympathy for them, and exposed the dubious legal pretext for their executions.

Democracy was supposed to provide for a more orderly system of succession. But the US founders understood that a democratic government could abuse the legal system to oppress its opponents, so they established constitutional rights, an independent judiciary, and other institutional barriers to safeguard political competition.

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