Former President Donald Trump is now facing criminal charges in federal and Georgia courts for his efforts to overturn his loss in the 2020 election to President Biden. Despite being the front-runner for the Republican 2024 presidential nomination, Trump has criticized the federal indictment as an “outrageous criminalization of political speech.” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Trump’s closest GOP rival, also condemned the indictment as an example of the “criminalization of politics” by Trump’s Democratic enemies.
The federal indictment acknowledges Trump’s right to speak publicly about the election and make false claims regarding outcome-determinative fraud. However, special counsel Jack Smith’s team accuses Trump of pursuing unlawful means to discount legitimate votes and subvert the election results. Democrats argue that it was Trump who tried to pressure Georgia officials into reversing his narrow loss by finding enough votes to put him ahead of Biden. They claim that Republicans are helping Trump attack the system that ensures fair elections, leading to the question of which side is truly criminalizing politics.
The Left’s Treatment of Political Speech
Elle Purnell at The Federalist argues that Democrats are escalating their campaign to weaponize the criminal justice system against their chief political opponent. Georgia’s Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis’ racketeering charges targeting Trump and his lawyers send a clear message that challenging election results, something Democrats have done after every GOP presidential victory this century, is now considered a criminal offense. The Justice Department has also indicted Trump over a classified documents dispute while treating Biden’s mishandling of secret documents leniently. This selective application of the law undermines the integrity of real elections, as the decision to threaten a candidate with jail now seems to depend on their party affiliation.
The backlash over Trump’s indictment could have disastrous consequences, as Jack Goldsmith highlights in The New York Times. The timing is delicate, especially when Republicans are accusing the Department of Justice of going easy on Hunter Biden, President Biden’s son. Special counsel Jack Smith’s indictment presents a factually compelling but legally uncertain case against Trump, alleging a criminal conspiracy to subvert the 2020 election result. The prosecution’s success or failure will have significant costs for the legal and political systems. The Biden administration’s decision to pursue the prosecution of the Republican most likely to challenge Biden in 2024, regardless of partisan motivations, raises concerns about the political implications of this deeply unfortunate timing.
Trump’s Criminalization of Politics
Amanda Marcotte at Salon criticizes Republicans’ dishonest reaction to the charges, particularly Sen. Tim Scott’s accusation that prosecutors are weaponizing the legal system for political purposes. Marcotte points out that most of the people testifying against Trump are Republicans, making it disingenuous to claim that Democrats are criminalizing politics. In reality, Trump himself has criminalized politics by transforming the GOP into a mafia-like organization where loyalty means being ready to commit crimes or look the other way.
Henry Giroux, writing for The Conversation, argues that Trump has not only criminalized social problems but also politics itself. Trump and his allies have created a culture of lies, illusions, cruelty, and misrepresentation, attacking reason, critical thinking, informed judgment, and social responsibility. Giroux sees Trump as the embodiment of a crisis that started with the right-wing counter-revolution in the 1980s. Democratic values that once informed the social contract and common good have been displaced by market values that prioritize self-interest and the celebration of greed. Despite being a national disgrace, Trump is highly likely to secure the Republican nomination and has even odds of defeating Biden in the next election. Therefore, the upcoming election will be a crucial choice between democracy and the further criminalization of American politics.