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Count me among those who believe the wheels of US justice should turn as surely for Donald Trump as for any ordinary criminal suspect. No man is higher than the law etc. Yet I cannot help worrying that the Republican party’s response to this week’s FBI raid on Mar-a-Lago has pushed America’s democratic predicament into terrifying new waters.
Stripped to its essence, Trump and his furies are vowing to use the machinery of federal law enforcement to punish their political enemies. To be sure, Trump tried, and mostly failed, to do that in his first term in office. His Don Corleone instincts bumped up against too many resignation threats and were hemmed in by too much adult supervision to prevail.
His second term would be no dress rehearsal. From day one, Trump would have ultra-loyalists in position to give form to his reptilian soul. No more Chris Wrays, or Jeff Rosens, or even Bill Barrs. On the military side, no more Mark Milleys or Jim Mattises. Think of Richard Grenell as secretary of state, Jeff Clark as attorney-general and Mike Flynn as secretary of defence. These are the types of thugs who Trump knows will broach no dissent.
In 2016, Trump rhetorically ran against the deep state. Next time he will have an actual plan to turn the US federal government into an instrument of his will. His goal would be to abolish the guardrails, which is a posh way of saying he will end the US republic. Swampians who want to learn more should read Axios’s Jonathan Swan on Trump’s Schedule F plans.
I still think it’s essential to prosecute Trump for the attempted coup on January 6, 2021, assuming Merrick Garland can build a watertight case. No self-preserving republic can allow an assault on its foundations to go unanswered. It is a question of principle. Yet I am also aware that on pragmatic grounds, the various federal and state criminal and civil probes of Trump are likely to be turned to his political advantage. Trump in 2024 will run against the witch hunters on the promise that if he wins he will burn them. Remember, Trump projects his desires on to others. This week he accused the Department of Justice of conducting a political investigation. His supporters referred to the Gestapo. Because Trump is unable to comprehend the concept of blind justice he assumes everyone is crooked. It has also been noted that Trump has repeatedly said only guilty people plead the Fifth Amendment right to remain silent, which is what Trump did in New York this week.
I draw two conclusions from this week’s evidence of the gathering investigations into Trump. First, his party is with him. The alacrity with which figures such as Kevin McCarthy, the possible (indeed, still likely) next Speaker of the House of Representatives, and Marco Rubio, the shape-shifting Floridian senator, echoed Trump’s rhetoric made that very clear. His party is too cowed to take on the Maga mob. They have signed up to a tit-for-tat view of the rule of law in which revenge will be theirs. This is beyond bleak. Second, Trump’s rebooted sense of victimhood has made him the overwhelming favourite to be the 2024 Republican nominee. He could announce his candidacy at any point. A few months ago, there were telling signs that Trump’s stranglehold over the party was weakening, which I wrote about here. But in this perverse world the wheels of justice are Trump’s friend. The more thoroughly Garland does his job, the clearer the 2024 battle lines will be: Trump versus the rule of law.
Sarah, I know that you’re watching the singularly unedifying Conservative party leadership contest that will pick Britain’s next prime minister in a couple of weeks. Whenever I feel glum about the abysmal quality of UK politics, I remind myself that America is potentially in a far worse condition. But that isn’t at all comforting. Where do you look for political reassurance?
Also, London-based Swampians or visiting ones who will be in the UK on Saturday September 3 should book a ticket to the unmissable annual FT Weekend Festival at Kenwood House. I’ll be there but, more important, so will MP and former health secretary Jeremy Hunt, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, Great British Bake-Off winner Nadiya Hussain and more. Claim £20 off your festival pass using promo code FTWFxNewsletters.
I’m still reeling from being accused of being an “optimist” on Twitter this week. The reason was my latest column on Joe Biden’s unexpected triumph. “America’s oldest president can now boast of a stronger legislative record in less than two years than either Obama or Bill Clinton achieved in eight,” I write. “It turns out that low expectations are Biden’s secret weapon.”
In case you’re among the few who haven’t read Susan Glasser and Peter Baker’s piece in the New Yorker — an excerpt of their forthcoming book, The Divider: Trump in the White House 2017-2021 — you really should do so. Come for the granular reporting. Stay for Trump’s idea of what Hitler’s generals did for him.
The Aspen Strategy Group’s Joseph Nye penned a thoughtful survey of the scale of the US-China challenge in the wake of Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. His advice is sound but very unlikely to be heeded. “If America avoids ideological demonisation, shuns misleading cold war analogies, and maintains its alliances, it can successfully manage the China challenge.”
Sarah O’Connor responds
Ed, you raise the prospect of the end of the US republic. I might once have thought that was a bit much, but I’ve just finished rereading Robert Harris’ trilogy of novels about Cicero, who lived through the tumultuous death of the Roman republic. When I last read them a decade or so ago, they were just enjoyable historical novels to me. This time around, it was hard to ignore the present-day resonances in a tale of wealthy demagogues who directed the public’s anger at the ruling elite in an attempt to destroy its institutions and attain supreme power.
I think you’re right that our problems in Britain, while miserable, don’t feel existential in quite the same way as America’s do. On the other hand, at least the US government has just passed some serious legislation which attempts to meet the crises of the moment. Over here in the UK, “almost nothing seems to be working”, as the Economist put it this week. It’s not just that we face huge energy bills and high inflation. It’s also that public services are under huge strain after a decade of austerity followed by a pandemic. The number of people waiting for treatment from the NHS has reached 6.7mn — that’s 10 per cent of the population. Neither of the two candidates to succeed Boris Johnson as prime minister seem to recognise the seriousness of the problem. Brits worry about what the winter will bring.
Perhaps the best we can do is to channel Cicero, who observes in Harris’ first book: “The art of life is to deal with problems as they arise, rather than destroy one’s spirit by worrying about them too far in advance.” Given that he ended up getting beheaded, I think he was on to something.
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