Editor’s note: This piece was originally published on 21 March but has been updated as Manhattan prosecutors indicted Donald Trump on Thursday 30 March. The charges against the former president centre on the $130,000 he allegedly paid to an adult film star, Stormy Daniels.
Are we about to witness a watershed moment for American democracy? As early as this evening (21 March), the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg, is expected to place Donald Trump under arrest for allegedly paying hush money to a porn star during the 2016 presidential campaign. Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, has testified that he paid $130,000 to the actress known as Stormy Daniels through a shell company and was later reimbursed with Trump’s knowledge by his organisation. The former president denies all charges.
It’s not the allegation that pushes America into entirely unfamiliar terrain. President Richard Nixon resigned from office in August 1974 before he was convicted for covering up the Watergate scandal; Bill Clinton survived a 1998-99 impeachment for lying about sexual relations with an intern. In both cases the centre held. Nixon’s followers agreed he was a crook and moved on, and Clinton found enough senators to vote that lying about an affair did not violate his oath of office.
But Trump’s indictment is different. This would be the first time a US president was ever placed in handcuffs for alleged crimes that took place outside of public office. Yet even an arrest isn’t likely to cause Trump’s supporters to abandon him: as the former president has boasted before, he could “stand in the middle of 5th Avenue[, New York] and shoot somebody” and not lose any votes. Since he first entered the political arena his base has routinely convinced itself that previous accusations of misconduct or criminal activity are either not all that bad (“grab ‘em by the pussy” is simply changing-room chat); exaggerated (he was merely giving a speech, not inciting a riot on 6 January); or downright false (he didn’t try to overturn the 2020 election because he actually won it). In light of his past sins, being accused of bribing a porn star doesn’t seem all that bad, and it won’t take that much Fox News programming to make Maga supporters believe that Trump is once again the victim.
[See also: Iraq made Donald Trump inevitable]
The problem for Trump is that the bulletproof vest protecting his approval ratings is starting to wear thin. According to a poll released earlier this month, the percentage of likely Iowa Republicans who said they’d “definitely” vote for Trump if he was to become the 2024 nominee has dropped by more than 20 percentage points since June 2021. This puts his favourability numbers roughly equal to with the governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, who doesn’t yet enjoy Trump’s name recognition among the public. The governor had been reluctant to speak out about an indictment but finally broke his silence on Monday (20 March), calling the district attorney a “Soros-funded prosecutor”. He also couldn’t resist the opportunity to at last throw some disrespect Trump’s way, smirking “I don’t know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star… I just – I can’t speak to that”.
The beauty of this particular indictment for DeSantis is that it gives him room to criticise Trump without directly questioning the tenets of Trumpism – namely that he won the 2020 election. DeSantis knows that if he plays this rolling scandal right, he could frame Trump’s legal woes as the result of the former president’s personal shortcomings and not because of any inherent flaws in his ideology. Trump’s followers, meanwhile, could seamlessly shift their allegiance over to DeSantis and Maga fervour could continue its course, only under a different figurehead.
For the moment it’s still unclear how the saga will resolve. In a disturbing echo of the Capitol riot of 6 January 2021, Trump has already called on his supporters to protest his arrest and New York City law enforcement is preparing for civil unrest. This places the US at a very dangerous moment in the history of its democracy. The country is hyperpolarised in ways it hasn’t been since a civil war split it apart 150 years ago. That might provide a ripe opportunity for Trump or DeSantis to use politically – but it could come at great cost to the rest of the country and its future.