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A danger called Donald Trump

Donald Trump can end 2024 with one foot in the White House… or with one foot in jail.

Next year, the former president of the United States has a full agenda, with numerous campaign and court appearances that will attract lots of attention. Depending on the outcome, he may not only be the main protagonist of 2024, but also of 2025. Lately, Trump is giving free rein to some of his more authoritarian impulses. His hypothetical return to the presidency is perceived as a risk for American democracy.

The US presidential elections – scheduled for November 5 – will be the grand finale after a year full of elections around the world. Biden is seeking another four years, but his popularity is very low due to his advanced age (he would begin his new term at 82), rising inflation (with the prices of gasoline and food at the highest they’ve been in four decades) and other internal policy factors, such as rising crime and undocumented immigration. He has also taken a hit thanks to his foreign policy, regarding his position on the wars being waged against Ukraine and Gaza.

While the polls indicate that Biden would likely lose his re-election bid if he were to face a rival with less political baggage, the Republican Party’s base adores Trump. At the same time, the aversion he generates among moderate and independent voters – along with the possible mobilization of progressive voters that he could trigger – means that he’s the Democratic Party’s best bet.

Donald Trump, photographed on his private plane, in June 2023.Donald Trump, photographed on his private plane, in June 2023. Doug Mills (New York Times / Con

The former president is the favorite to clinch the Republican nomination for president, far ahead of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley. He’s had the luxury of not attending the debates with the rest of the candidates, while still maintaining more support than all of them combined. However, he still needs to formalize this advantage in the actual primaries, which begin on January 15 with the Iowa caucuses. That same day, the civil trial in the defamation lawsuit filed by writer E. Jean Carroll is scheduled to begin. From there, judicial and political commitments alternate and intermingle throughout the year.

In addition to civil lawsuits, the former president is accused in four criminal cases (in Washington, New York, Florida and Georgia), facing charges for a total of 91 crimes. The DC and Georgia cases are regarding his attempts to overturn Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 elections, which led to the assault on the Capitol on January 6, 2021 by his followers. Trump still maintains the lie that the election was stolen from him, which has allowed him to avoid the image of a loser. No other defeated president who ran for reelection ever made such a claim of election fraud.

That is to say, Trump is going back to the polls without having been made accountable for his actions to subvert the results of the 2020 election, which puts American democracy under a lot of pressure. Former Republican Congresswoman Liz Cheney – the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney – writes, in her recently-published book Oath and Honor, that the United States “can endure harmful policies for a four-year term. But we cannot survive a president willing to destroy our Constitution.’” She warns of the risk that the United States could slide into a dictatorial regime for the first time in its history should Trump return to the White House.

Trump’s lawyers will be able to defer some of the trials, but, for now, a March 4 court appearance remains on the agenda. Federal Judge Tanya Chutkan has set that date for the start of Trump’s Washington trial, which will deal with his attempt to alter the results of the 2020 elections. Trump has claimed presidential immunity, arguing that he was exercising the duties of his office. While the judge has rejected his request to dismiss the case, his lawyers have appealed the decision. The prosecutor has asked the Supreme Court to rule on the matter as soon as possible, but the trial is on the verge of being delayed.

“If that happens, voters will go to the polls without knowing whether one of the candidates in the current election is criminally responsible for trying to overturn the last election and subvert the will of the voters,” laments Randall Eliason, a professor of law at George Washington University.

The start of the trial – currently scheduled for Monday, March 4 – is the day before Super Tuesday, when a series of important primaries are held simultaneously. Typically, whoever picks up the greatest number of delegates that day lines up their party’s nomination. The Republican candidate for the general election is set to be approved during the Republican National Convention, from July 15 to July 18, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Trump has another trial scheduled for March, involving hush money payments that he allegedly made to hide scandals that could have ruined his 2016 presidential campaign. The most high-profile scandal was his alleged extramarital affair with pornographic actress Stormy Daniels. This is scheduled before a New York State court, for five weeks, starting on March 25, 2024. Then comes the criminal case for crimes in violation of the Espionage Act, as well as for obstruction of justice, for unlawfully keeping classified materials in his possession following his departure from the White House. The judge for the Southern District of Florida has scheduled a five-week-long trial starting on May 20, 2024, although it’s also likely to be delayed. The trial date that’s still pending is in Georgia, for his attempted electoral theft in that state. This is the case that immortalized Trump in a mugshot.

Between his first and last scheduled court dates, most of the primaries would be held. While some states will vote in June, it’s likely that the Republican presidential nomination will be announced in March or April. For now, even with the court cases, Trump has done well. Despite all the evidence against him, he has managed to present himself to his voters as a victim of the system. For them, he’s a martyr who’s been unjustly politically persecuted in what he calls a “witch hunt,” orchestrated for the purposes of electoral interference.

In an authoritarian drift, Trump has openly promised to persecute his political rivals if he returns to power, as revenge for all the accusations levied against him. “It could certainly happen the other way around,” he said, in an interview with Univision this past November, regarding the possibility of charges being opened against his opponents down the road. “They let the genie out of the bottle,” he continued. “If I happen to be president and I see somebody who’s doing well and beating me very badly, I say, go down and indict them.”

His violent and authoritarian rhetoric has been compared to that of fascist and populist dictators. Examples include the dehumanization of political rivals, whom Trump has referred to as “vermin” that must be “eradicated,” or his claims that undocumented immigrants are “poisoning the blood of the country.” These expressions have echoes of Nazi Germany. At an event in Boston, President Biden said as much, comparing the language to what was heard “in Germany in the 1930s.” Trump has repeatedly attacked judges and prosecutors, while suggesting that his former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – General Mark Milley – deserves to be executed. A couple of months ago, he urged for shoplifters to be shot.

Classified documents in a bathroom at Trump's vacation home, Mar-a-Lago, in Florida.Classified documents in a bathroom at Trump’s vacation home, Mar-a-Lago, in Florida. Departamento de Justicia de Esta

In an interview on Fox News, Trump said that, if he were to be re-elected, he would be a “dictator” for a day to take some measures… and then he would stop being one. Biden’s campaign manager – Julie Chávez Rodríguez – reacted immediately: “Donald Trump has been telling us exactly what he will do if he is re-elected and tonight he said that he will be a dictator on day one. Americans should believe him.”

Despite the accusations and verbal excesses (or partly thanks to them), Trump leads the polls not only in his party’s primaries, but in the general election. Trump is ahead in the vast majority of key states where the outcome will be decided: Pennsylvania, Georgia, Wisconsin, Michigan, Nevada and Arizona. President Joe Biden has seen how several voters from traditional Democratic blocs – such as young people, Blacks and Latinos – have turned their backs on him. Biden’s unconditional support for the Israeli government after the Hamas attack and the subsequent bombardment of Gaza has been perceived as far too complicit, resulting in huge drops in support among young people and minorities, especially Arab Americans, who are critical voters in states such as Michigan.

A Trump victory would have enormous consequences for global geopolitics. A hypothetical second Trump presidency would be marked by economic protectionism and political nationalism. The former president has been reluctant to continue supporting Ukraine against the Russian invasion. Not even his commitment to NATO is assured. The potential relationship with China is also unknown, beyond Trump’s musing about tariffs.

The risk of a constitutional crisis is compounded by the prospect that Trump could be elected president, but also found guilty of some of the crimes for which he is accused of. From the presidency, he could try to stop the persecution of cases that affect him, grant pardons to his allies (such as the imprisoned Capitol rioters) and – as he has hinted – persecute his political rivals by weaponizing the Department of Justice.

“If a president can pardon himself for federal crimes — as Trump would likely try to do — then he could write his pardon in advance and shoot White House visitors. For that matter, the vice president could assassinate the president in the Oval Office and then immediately pardon herself,” David Frum scoffs in a recent essay for The Atlantic, which is dedicated to imagining a second Trump presidency.

According to César Martínez – who has been a strategist for getting out the Latino vote in several presidential campaigns – the fact that Trump won in 2016 “was an accident of democracy and the electoral college. But, if he wins in 2024, it would be masochism.” Many political scientists warn that, in a second Trump term, he wouldn’t have to be restrained by a view to re-election.

“The chances of the United States falling into a dictatorship have increased considerably,”according to Robert Kagan, of the Brookings Institution. “In just a few years, we’ve gone from being relatively certain of our democracy, to being just steps away – and in a matter of months – from the possibility of a dictatorship,” he adds. in an article published in The Washington Post.

The presidential elections of November 5, 2024 are the first since the fateful events of January 6, 2021. Depending on whether Trump ends the year closer to prison or the White House, we’ll soon find out if those who stormed the Capitol that day will finally get what they wanted.

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