SINGAPORE: Every four years, Americans believe they will vote in the most important presidential election of their lives. It felt so in 2020, when there was real concern – which turned out to be valid – the losing candidate might not accept the outcome.
If Donald Trump is the Republican candidate, no question the 2024 United States presidential election will actually be the most important one in anyone’s lifetime. Never before has the US democratic system been at stake.
On Tuesday (Aug 1), Mr Trump was indicted over his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election. The indictment alleges that, as president, Mr Trump conspired to threaten and intimidate citizens from “the free exercise and enjoyment of … the right to vote, and to have one’s vote counted.”
This is Mr Trump’s third indictment, having already made history as the first former US president to face criminal charges. He was indicted in March in relation to hush money payments to a porn star and in June for mishandling top secret documents.
Not only will the former president soon be on trial, so too will the entire United States.
BROADER IMPLICATIONS ON US DEMOCRACY
How Americans vote next year, likely during legal proceedings on Mr Trump’s alleged conduct (especially when it strikes at the heart of the democracy the US exalts), will be watched by the world.
The latest indictment highlights how he directed a network of efforts to overturn the popular vote in swing states he lost, tried to obstruct Congress and pressure then vice president Mike Pence to overturn the 2020 election results, and tried to use the Justice Department to “make knowingly false claims of election fraud”.
It also shows Mr Trump’s role in fomenting the attack on the Capitol on Jan 6, 2021. “We fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore,” he told his supporters. “We’re going to the Capitol … We’re going to try and give them the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country.”
The US will lose much, if not all, of its stature as a leader of the free world if Mr Trump accepts an election that ends in his victory while on trial or possibly even in jail for trying to overturn one he lost.
STILL TOPPING REPUBLICAN POLLS
His legal woes have yet to tarnish his appeal among Republican voters. If anything, they have strengthened it.
In the latest New York Times-Siena College poll, Mr Trump received 54 per cent support – far ahead of his nearest challenger Ron DeSantis (17 per cent). Historically, people who have such a large lead at this point in the process do not lose.
The legal system alone will not stop a second Trump presidency. A criminal conviction would not prevent him from running or serving as president.
Only Republicans can stop Mr Trump – so far, there are no indications this will happen. The distinct minority of voices who challenge Mr Trump get hounded out of the party or booed out of Republican gatherings.
And his appeal is not limited to the Republican primary. In a hypothetical – but likely – rematch with current President Joe Biden, the same poll has them tie at 43 per cent each.
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WHAT A SECOND TRUMP PRESIDENCY WOULD MEAN GLOBALLY
There’s no telling what Mr Trump might do, both domestically and in foreign relations, if he becomes president a second time. For one, the foreign policy underscored by Mr Biden would be a thing of the past.
It is unimaginable Mr Trump would give a speech as the one Mr Biden did in Lithuania, when he said the US and its partners “stepped up” and “did what we always do” when faced with “a threat to the peace and stability of the world, to democratic values we hold dear, to freedom itself”, in reference to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
If countries can’t count on the US to lead in major crises, they will need to change their foreign policy and reconsider their military alliances, trade and investment decisions, and climate action partners.
Mr Trump may be the one indicted, but America and what it stands for will be on trial.
Steven R Okun is CEO of Singapore-headquartered APAC Advisors, Senior Adviser for global strategic consultancy McLarty Associates and Chair of the AmChams of Asia Pacific. He served in the Clinton administration as Deputy General Counsel at the US Department of Transportation.