Until his indictment for 34 offences relating to payment of hush money to a pornstar, former US President Donald Trump’s star had been waning.
After his defeat by “Sleepy” Joe Biden in 2020 and his ignominious but failed attempt at a takeover on January 6, Trump was slowly heading to irrelevance in America’s politics, except to his loyal base; the lot he once bragged would stay with him even if we went to street and shot a few people.
Nothing exposed Trump’s fallibility than the mid-term elections when the prophesied “red wave” came to nought.
The Republicans failed to capture the Senate and barely managed to beat the Democrats in the House of Representatives. Many of Trump’s preferred candidates lost, despite his vociferous support. But Trump is the master of makeovers and the drama surrounding his arrest and arraignment had all the trappings of a Donald re-model. Not only did he play victim, but also managed to restate all his wild conspiracy theories with a huge local and foreign audience.
Being the first former or serving American President to be indicated for criminal offences should have been cause of embarrassment but to Trump it was a moment of triumph.
It proved what he had said all along; that there was a giant liberal “extreme left” conspiracy to stop him from acceding to high office. It was the same conspirators who had tried unsuccessfully to impeach him to stop him from “fighting for America”.
Never mind that his lawyer, Michael Cohen was serving time for the same matter that Trump was being indicted for. Never mind that the story of paying off “Stormy Daniels” to keep quiet about their affair had been established in the Cohen trial, Trump still managed to sell to an eager support base that he was the innocent victim of left-wing conspiracies.
What should worry his detractors is that this indictment has given him his mojo back. Until the New York District Attorney announced the pending indictment, Trump was still beatable in the Republican party.
Since the announcement, polls show his popularity among Republicans has been growing and it may well propel him to the party’s nomination. What is doubtful is whether it will enable him to win the presidency against Joe Biden, assuming the latter will be the Democrat’s candidate.
Many independents, who determine the general election, have deserted him. But there is no doubt, Trump has for the last seven or so years carried out a vicious assault on America’s democratic institutions.
Until his candidature, there were certain accepted ethos about the presidency. Most critical was basic moral decency; an expectation that while not angelic, American presidents represented certain basic moral values. Trump massacred all that, the height of this assault on American morality being his brazen boast about assaulting women. Throughout his term, he pushed all pre-existing boundaries on how presidential power could be exercised, making no apologies for openly exploiting the presidency to advance personal agendas.
While there is no doubt previous presidents had used the presidency to pursue personal agendas, it was always done latently and off camera. Trump made it almost fashionable to push the elasticity of the law to almost breaking point.
But it was in rejecting the results and attempting a violent takeover that Trump prosecuted the greatest damage on American democracy. Fortunately, the American system remains resilient and continues to thrive despite Trump. I believe even the judicial system will withstand the political punches he will throw at it.
Trump offers great lessons for young democracies like Kenya. Critically, we must recognise that every so often in politics, events or people will batter what are presumed to be agreed mores of managing our democracy.
Before that inevitable day comes, we must heavily invest in strengthening our institutions to withstand these assaults. It is therefore deeply worrying when the state captures independent institutions including the prosecution, the Judiciary, or the electoral commission.
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It is just as dangerous when the opposition attacks these institutions without merit so early in their infancy. Ultimately, we need to let our institutions strengthen, for they stand between us and autocracy, and the world is not short of autocrats.
-The writer is an advocate of the High Court of Kenya