States of Disunion

The People v. Donald Trump

There is a pathway for Democrats to maintain power: Treat the GOP presidential candidate like the criminal he is and bring the courtroom to the campaign.

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On January 6, 2021, Donald J. Trump committed the ultimate betrayal of this country. After failing to sway the people through his campaign and exhausting every legal recourse available, on that singular day, he gathered thousands of supporters in Washington, D.C.—not for a redress of honest grievances, but to seize power that our system would not give him. Trump repeated the known lies his lieutenants had used to organize the mob—that the votes against him were illegitimate, that there was a conspiracy to hand the election to his opponent, that there was a mechanism to be used by his vice-president, Mike Pence, that would allow for this false transgression against him to be fixed—and then sent his armed, enraged horde to ensure his will would be done in Congress at gunpoint. He did so with the intention that either Congress would recognize this threat and fold to his demands, or their resistance to his presidency of violence would be answered by the mob he had summoned for that very purpose. The will of the people, the votes we had cast in the previous November, the trust and faith of our sworn representatives, the right to a government that acts on our behalf—all of it was immaterial to him. And if he had succeeded, we would have been overthrown.

Despite his failure, it feels like we already have been.

More than three years later, it does not appear we will ever get justice for this crime. Trump’s political faction did their best to stymie his impeachment, denying a conviction in the Senate by withholding ten votes that would have barred him from office forever. The states have been told by the courts, stuffed with Trump toadies, that they have no authority to deny the perpetrator of this electoral betrayal access to the ballot. The Supreme Court, bloated with conservative corruption, now openly weighs a retroactive coronation of Trump as king, by suggesting that the presidency is insulated from all accountability and responsibility to the country, the system that maintains it, or the people from whom all power is derived. If we want a resolution to the ongoing trauma of the January 6th Insurrection, we will have to get it ourselves.

Every answer, however, requires a question. We are too distracted and dispersed as a sovereign people to do the work on our own. At best, we get snippets of the scale of the problem through social media or television, background noise that melts away almost as soon as we hear it, and we forget our anger and our sense of betrayal. Without a proper and fair legal process to broadcast, Democrats must bring the courtroom to the campaign. Convert the nation into a jury and our ballots into verdicts. Make the case against Trump—his violence, his disrespect for history and process, his usurpation of our natural rights—and, at the same time, argue for our ability to hold him accountable by permanently punting him out of politics.

Handed the option in the most recent midterms and in special elections before and since, voters have rejected election deniers almost universally. Despite the tireless work of Republican officials and commentariat to manipulate the public, the January 6th Insurrection itself remains extremely unpopular and unacceptable to most of the electorate. For every vote convinced to stay with the oathbreaker Trump and his criminal cadre, more are lost for asking to normalize this blatantly abnormal turn in government. By putting the insurrection at the heart of the campaign, Democrats will get the advantage of arguing on behalf of democracy while putting Donald Trump in a situation he has almost never been in during his short political career: on defense.

The potency of keeping Donald Trump off balance and in retreat has been on display in his criminal case over the illegal payment of hush money to prevent damaging narratives from affecting his first campaign for the presidency. During his ongoing trial, Trump has been sullen, disengaged, irritable, and impotent, helpless in a way that he has never demonstrated on the campaign trail. Some of that is the product of court rules and his lawyers’ thin restraint: He can’t go on rants or foment distraction or turn the whole thing into a spectacle with himself at the center of the circus. But the rest is the product of having to react rather than attack and forcing him to reckon with unpleasant questions. And the more he’s pressured to provide a response, the more damning that response is likely to be.

If Democrats make this campaign about his actions on January 6th, Trump is sure to rant and rave and implicate himself against all legal advice. He will remind us all about the threat he posed to the country then and still represents now. He will undermine existing legal defenses of his conduct before, during, and after the insurrection, create an enormous headache for Republican rationalizations of the same, and strain the credulity of all but the most dedicated adherents to his cause. With every new broadside against the system, with every unhinged threat against judges, elected officials, operatives, allies, enemies, and the voters ourselves, Trump will demonstrate exactly why he should be prevented from power.

But to goad Trump into the trap of his own bad behavior, to make clear the consequences to the electorate, to craft an argument that fulfills itself with every reaction he makes, it requires someone seasoned and trained to set the bait. Fortunately, this campaign has one of the most talented prosecutors in the country on its team: Kamala Harris. As vice-president, not only is she expected to go on the attack in this campaign, but she’s uniquely situated to argue for a restoration of principle to the office and its responsibility to popular will. As she breaks down the weak defenses of the January 6th Insurrection, she can build upon her boss’s restraint, discipline, deference, and adherence to the rule of law—and, tacitly, her own. Moreover, as a Black, South Asian woman, she presents an irresistible target for Trump to attack, luring him into self-destruction.

There is a pervasive fear that if Democrats, and the people aligned with the party, make this election about Trump, we will lose. We might agitate his unstable followers, or provide an opportunity for him to turn the attacks around as he so often has, or a thousand other worries about what Trump will do to us rather than what we can do to him. But the worst has already happened—an attempted coup against popular will, with Congress held hostage—and everything we are afraid of is because he has gone unpunished for that. There is no chance that Donald Trump wins this election with a majority of votes, because he never has. There is no chance that he operates with the consent of the governed, because he never has. There is only the chance we give him to subvert our will and replace it with his own, the chance we create by conceding our acceptance of January 6th.

Donald Trump should have been convicted under impeachment for trying to install himself as the first American dictator. He shouldn’t be allowed on the ballot under the 14th Amendment, and he should be in jail for any one of the myriad crimes he has committed against the people of this country—individually and collectively. But since his sycophants have their places of power in our assemblies and statehouses and federal offices, since they sit on the bench and proclaim his crimes legal, a trial of public opinion might be our only option to deliver a verdict that finally matters. It only requires a message and a messenger brave enough to make the case.

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