Across the globe, it would be fair to say this has been a mixed couple of weeks for democracy. With the Conservatives losing two of three contested seats in last week’s byelections, to the Spain narrowly avoiding a coalition with the far right in this week’s surprise snap election results. However, something else looms over the horizon, a familiar looking, orange-tinted shadow over the collective western psyche threatens its return: that of President Donald Trump.
While Conservative losses in England may be signalling the death knell on thirteen years of Tory rule, and the Spanish results may provide a surprise sigh of relief that echoed throughout the continent, the return of Donald Trump to frontline US politics is not only perfectly feasible, but poses a genuine threat to their democracy that we cannot afford to dismiss any longer. As much as we would all love to ignore him, this was the mistake we made last time. So this week, let’s discuss the implications of a hypothetical situation we all hoped would never come around again: what’s at stake with a second term of Trump?
At time of writing, Trump has so far been indicted twice by both the FBI over the alleged storage of classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, and the state of New York over alleged hush money payments made to an adult actress during the 2016 Presidential campaign. More federal and state charges are pending, with another indictment over the January 6th riots imminent, and charges pending in the state of Georgia over his campaign’s alleged attempts to overturn the election results there after the state flipped in favour of Biden in the 2020 election.
Despite this, some opinion polls suggest that the former President is the most likely to win the Republican nomination for the 2024 Presidential election, so far beating out other candidates; including Governor of Florida Ron DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence, and former ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley; by a country mile.
This, in combination with another opinion poll which would suggest a Trump victory in the event of an election against incumbent President Joe Biden, then multiple scenarios now lie ahead for US voters: some of them not exactly a picture of optimism, all of them testing the true legal limits of their Constitution.
The first, in which Trump may use the Presidency to dodge the impending criminal charges, is made possible by presidential immunity, and could see him using the Executive office to delay proceedings for at least another four years. We are already beginning to see hints of this from his legal team, who argued for the classified documents trial – now set to begin in May 2024 – to be delayed until after the election. Had they won this motion, and Trump won the election, they may not have ben able to try him.
This perfectly legal cop-out would pose a significant risk to some criminal proceedings against him. Most federal crimes have a statute of limitations (a set time within which charges must be brought after an alleged crime has been committed) of five years. With a four year presidency, in another year’s time, would mean that any charges not brought by the election could legally no longer be pursued. In this scenario, Trump’s motivation to seek a second term suddenly becomes clear: to dodge criminal responsibility, to prove once again that he can get away with it because, well, he’s Donald Trump.
The second scenario is even darker than that. In the years that Trump has become a pariah, a laughing stock in the mainstream media, he and his supporters have been plotting. Trump has been regularly quoted at his rallies as describing a ‘final battle’, in any potential second term of his. The rhetoric has more sinister undertones now than it did in the run up to January 6th, and as an outsider looking in, it is frankly terrifying to watch unfold from the side lines. His insinuation at a rally in Waco, Texas, that the almost 200 people who have so far been sentenced to time in prison for their role in the events of that day should be freed, suggests potential presidential pardons for them when he takes office, alongside the hundreds of others who have been charged and await trial.
Condoning the violence of that day, in which several people were killed and left permanently disabled thanks to the mob mentality of baseless conspiracies, would surmount to a complete disregard for democracy and civil order.
There is, however, an optimistic scenario: the polls, as they so often do, could change in favor of Biden over the next year or so, Biden could win a second term, and Trump could be held responsible for the criminal acts he is accused of committing both in and out of office, making this entire article an overdramatic moot point.
No, a second Biden term would not be ideal. He is a liberal bureaucrat with no passion for change, while his age and rumours surrounding his health will only raise more concerns around his ability to serve in office over the next five years. However, it cannot be understated just how preferred this would be to a second term of Trump. Never has the phrase ‘lesser of two evils’ been so pertinent to the insurance of the US’ constitutional, democratic structures.
Every election tests the limits of democracy, but never before has it been so in peril in the modern West. This is perhaps why we find it so jarring, our privilege has blinded us to the reality that democracy as an institution is a flowing process, and not a set structure. It is our civic duty to maintain it, and when we neglect it, it festers.
Let this be a reminder to us all, that we must remain vigilant to this, to scrutinise and hold our governments to account by continuing to speak out, continuing to campaign, continuing to vote. While we still can.