On Tuesday the Justice Department released details of yet another indictment of former President and reality-TV star Donald J. Trump. The new indictment — the third since just last May — brings the total number of felony charges currently pending against him to 78. While previous indictments have focused on comparatively minor matters, including hush-money payments to porn star Stormy Daniels and the mishandling of sensitive national security documents, these latest charges focus exclusively on Trump’s attempts to stay in office by overturning the 2020 election results, thus, as prosecutors claim, defrauding and violating the civil rights of millions of U.S. voters. That Trump is guilty of these charges, and much worse, goes without saying. It’s clear that he had every intention after the election of trying to create a constitutional crisis in order to remain in power. And after a political career of spewing hate, advocating violence, and promoting and helping to pass harmful laws against immigrants, women, and people of color, Trump deserves nothing less than to spend what’s left of his pathetic life in jail. However, we should not fool ourselves into believing that these charges have anything to do with dishing out justice or defending democracy and voting rights.
Indeed, this latest indictment has nothing to do with protecting the rule of law, and everything to do with protecting bourgeois rule and the stability and legitimacy of the capitalist state that facilitates the continued exploitation and oppression of working people everywhere. Trump’s supporters and conservative right-wing media outlets, including Fox News, have argued for months now that the indictments are politically motivated. They claim they are a conspiracy on behalf of the Biden campaign to distract from the legal troubles of Biden’s son, Hunter, and to weaken the presumptive Republican nominee in order to secure a victory for the Democrats in the 2024 presidential elections. While they are correct that these indictments are part of a broader attempt to keep Trump from winning a second election, the actual motivations behind these indictments transcend partisanship and are about much more than helping the Democrats secure the presidency. While Trump certainly has some allies among the ruling class looking for a more Bonapartist solution to the crisis of accumulation and U.S. hegemony, behind the many damning charges against Trump lies a more fundamental attempt on behalf of a broad sector of capital to defend the stability and legitimacy of the U.S. regime in the midst of a series of ongoing military, economic, ecological, and political crises.
Whether it’s the still-fragile economy, the future of NATO and the war in Ukraine, or the economic rivalry with China, capitalists on both sides of the aisle are increasingly uneasy about how a second Trump presidency might undermine efforts to maintain U.S. economic and military power. The war in Ukraine and the future of the NATO alliance, are of special concern for U.S. capital, since NATO represents one of the primary means of asserting U.S. imperialism abroad. Since taking office, President Biden has worked tirelessly to grow NATO and to reestablish U.S. influence over the alliance, and has used the war in Ukraine to weaken Russia and prepare the U.S. and its allies for possible future conflicts with China. In contrast to this strategy, Trump repeatedly threatened to withdraw from the NATO alliance while in office, and has regularly praised Russian President, Vladimir Putin, whom he views as a fellow strongman. In fact, just one day after the indictments were announced, Trump’s own former Secretary of State, the notoriously hawkish John Bolton, blasted Trump for his positions on NATO, stating that “in a second Trump term, we’d almost certainly withdraw from NATO.” In other words, in a still fragile economy, in the context of escalating tensions with China and the specter of multipolarity haunting the world, the U.S. capitalist class is terrified that the U.S. state will further lose standing, legitimacy, economic and political hegemony in a Trump administration.
But even more than this, the U.S. ruling class fears that another four years of Trump could add fuel to the fire of the still simmering political crisis of legitimacy, which Trump used to catapult himself into the presidency and to effectively take over the Republican Party. The underlying causes of this still unfolding “organic crisis,” as the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci would have called it, took shape during the decades of neoliberalism, which eventually culminated in the 2008 banking collapse and recession. But it was not until the run up to the 2016 presidential elections, that the true depth of the political crisis began to express itself. Trump’s victory that year was just one of the many morbid symptoms of a political regime that could no longer contain or capture and redirect the dissatisfactions of the masses, who — due to decades of austerity and the ongoing problems of capital accumulation — have increasingly begun to look for new representatives and new political alternatives to the status quo.
This crisis reached its apex in the January 6 Capitol riots that were themselves, in turn, fueled by Trump’s unique brand of right-wing populism, which has managed to capture and catalyze the uneasiness and discontent of the vast majority of the Right. For huge portions of the U.S population, particularly disaffected and downwardly mobile petit-bourgeois whites, Trump’s anti-establishment rhetoric and strongman Bonapartism are the embodiment of a growing resentment of what Nancy Fraser called progressive neoliberalism, and a misguided desire to solve the capitalist crisis through a reactionary and frequently racist attempt to “Make America Great Again” at the expense of the further immiseration of Black and Brown working people.
While the U.S. ruling class seemed able to accept and adapt to Trump’s eccentricities in 2016, leaning heavily on the “adults in the room,” and while Biden has managed to reestablish some sense of normalcy since, the threat of a second Trump presidency to the general stability of the U.S. regime is much greater now. Trump’s demagoguery, his egomania, his willingness to defy bourgeois law, his ability to hold a grudge, his antipathy toward much of the Washington establishment, and his influence among far-right extremists suggest that he would be much harder to manage and control now than in 2016. More than this, a second Trump presidency would almost certainly lead to greater political polarization on both the Right and the Left, and more open attacks on working people, immigrants, people of color and LGBTQ+ folks, which could, in turn inaugurate a new cycle of unrest, protests, uprisings, class struggle, and even political violence. That the ruling class would prefer to maintain power while still avoiding such a situation is obvious. But whether or not it can is a different question.
The legal case against Trump, including the latest series of charges, appears to be a strong one, and it’s not out of the question that Trump may be convicted and even imprisoned. Such a move, were it to happen before November, 2024, would threaten the very legitimacy of the elections, and would undoubtedly create enormous discontent among Trump’s social base. This is why the timing of these indictments is so critical. They are far enough away from the 2024 elections to hurt Trump’s efforts to win both the nomination and the general election, but not so far away that a conviction is likely to be handed down before the election, especially since it is likely that Trump’s legal team will make every effort to postpone and drag out the proceedings in the hope that a Trump victory would shield him from prosecution while in office. It’s also possible that, even though a sector of the regime does want Trump in jail, that the tactical goal would be to have Trump under control with a judicial sword of Damocles hanging over his head if he actually wins the presidency, which is still a distinct possibility.
So far the indictments against Trump, designed to weaken his credibility in the eyes of the electorate, have only further solidified support among his base who see the indictments as an attempt to undermine their candidate, and who regularly say that they will vote for him regardless of whether or not they believe he is guilty. According to Five Thirty Eight, which aggregates dozens of different polls, Trump is beating his nearest Republican rival, Governor Ron DeSantis, by almost 40 points, and seems almost certain to win the nomination. Meanwhile, a recent New York Times and Siena College poll has Trump tied neck and neck with Joe Biden in a general presidential election.
These numbers make it plain that there is a large and loyal social base of Trump supporters, who, regardless of what happens in 2024, are likely going to remain a political force in U.S. politics. But it also shows that there is huge discontent with the status quo of the Biden regime, and that the political crisis of capitalism has opened up enormous space for the discussion of alternatives. The state may be able to temporarily stop Trump through legal measures, but only the Left and the working class can defeat Trumpism as an ideology by stepping into the fray and confronting the very system that created it. Defeating Trumpism and the reactionary and often-violent Far Right that has grown alongside it, requires building the kinds of institutions of self-organization needed to put forward working class ideas and to organize working class methods of struggle, including mass strikes and demonstrations. This means breaking with the banal logic of lesser evilism and taking seriously the construction of a working class party for socialism that is entirely independent of the two parties of capital.