Last Thursday, the American political system faced a seismic shock with the indictment of former President Donald Trump by a Manhattan grand jury. Immediately, the norms of American politics were upturned; while Democratic Party figures mainly remained tempered in their reactions, Republican figures were aghast, claiming political persecution from a partisan prosecutor. The indictment is unprecedented in the history of the United States, so the shock from both sides of the political spectrum is expected and warranted. Once the inertia of this shakeup dissipates, however, it will be apparent that this is no political persecution. This is a system of justice working as intended, and not entirely without any precedent as well.
Although the indictment remains under seal until April 4, when Trump is predicted to surrender to Manhattan authorities, it is expected that Trump is facing around 30 fraud-related charges stemming from falsified business records, itself stemming from alleged hush money payments to pornographic actress Stormy Daniels. A former president facing criminal charges may be bewildering to the American public, but heads of state facing charges is not an unusual case in the grand scale of liberal democracies.
Numerous right-wing commentators have described Trump’s indictment as the “end of America,” though other vibrant democracies in the past decade have not shied away from persecuting corrupt leaders after their time in office. In 2013, former Prime Minister of Italy Silvio Berlusconi was convicted of tax fraud and temporarily banned from the Italian Senate; he has since returned to the Senate. In 2018, a year and a half after her impeachment and removal from office, former South Korean President Park Geun-hye was sentenced to prison for corruption and abuse of power, though she has since been pardoned. Most recently, in 2021, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy was sentenced to prison on corruption charges.
Steven Levitsky, a professor of government at Harvard, told the New York Times, “It’s always a big deal when a former president or prime minister is indicted, but in most democracies, it is normal when they’re credibly accused of serious crimes.” In regards to the political shock, he shot back that “Political systems have to handle it, they have to. Because the alternative — saying some people are above the law — is much worse.”
Indeed, the ramifications of a system of justice that favors one side can be catastrophic. This is, in fact, a consistent and systemic issue throughout the justice system in the United States. But is not, as one side claims it, a system in which conservatives are targeted and attacked, but one in which Black Americans and those stuck in poverty are targeted.
As I’ve covered in a previous analysis for The Anchor, data and history both show a concentrated attack from law and justice on both low-income and Black Americans. Most recent data from the U.S. Department of Justice shows that 2.5% of Americans are under a form of correctional supervision. These citizens are not primarily made up of conservative politicians and media figures, but of the most vulnerable members of society.
A key tenant of American justice is the concept that no one is above the law. As of now, that is not seen in justice en masse. This is due to the framework of the justice system in America; mandatory sentencing, exorbitant bails and the access of lawyers between the rich and poor exacerbate the divide in which the rich are able to escape justice, but the poorer communities and people most prone to injustice and prejudice.
But mourn not for the billionaires who are ensnared; even a broken clock strikes right twice a day. Trump’s indictment is a rare case of the criminal justice system holding accountable the upper class that too often evades consequences. Instead of assuming an imagined slight against conservatives, it is important to analyze the conduct of Trump critically. The case in which Trump has been indicted is not his only legal affair: he is also under investigation in Georgia for his conduct in attempting to overturn the 2020 presidential election, and by the federal government for his possession of classified documents and obstruction of said investigation. Perhaps instead of a witch hunt against Trump, or perhaps Trump simply has an affinity of committing criminal conduct knowing his status shields him from consequence.
Of course, Trump is innocent until proven guilty and deserves all of the rights the legal system affords him. The indictment against him, however, is not the sky falling down on the country. Instead, it’s a functioning democracy performing the way it should. We can only wait to see the full indictment and if the case does go to trial, but it is important we do not fall for hysterics in the meantime. Instead, we should remember that other flourishing democracies have held the powers that be accountable, and these nations still stand today.