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No Accountability for Trump Is a Greenlight for More Election Manipulation

Political science professor Anthony DiMaggio discusses what the stakes are for democracy in 2024.

Donald Trump is seen arriving at Trump Tower on May 29, 2023 in New York City.

In this exclusive Truthout interview, Anthony DiMaggio, associate professor of political science at Lehigh University, breaks down the indictment of former President Donald Trump in New York as well as his pending criminal investigation in Georgia. He discusses the significance of both cases, what the left can do to prevent a dangerous precedent and what the stakes are for democracy in 2024.

Daniel Falcone: Can you explain the significance of the criminal charges against Trump in New York and describe why the organized left needs to pay attention to the charges and the case? Which aspects of the investigation are political and which are legally pertinent in your estimation?

Anthony DiMaggio: The New York charges, which include 34 felony counts, are politically significant because a president cannot be empowered to ignore the law when they break it as shamelessly as Trump has. Trump has been charged with dozens of counts related to allegations that he was involved in a payoff to keep silent the porn star Stormy Daniels, with whom he allegedly had a sexual affair. The charges also reportedly involve Trump’s payoff of a second woman that he allegedly had an affair with, and one of Trump’s former doormen, who claimed that he had an out-of-wedlock child.

Stepping back for a minute, we should remember the previous round of legal charges against Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen. The heart of that case had to do with unreported campaign contributions. Cohen admits that the $130,000 payment he made to Daniels was intended to aid Trump in his election prospects. Under federal election law, that donation had to be reported to the federal government and the Federal Election Commission. Furthermore, under the Federal Election Campaign Act, any donations to benefit a campaign cannot be larger than $2,700, and Cohen’s payment to Daniels clearly exceeded that.

In the New York case, Trump is accused of falsifying various business records pertaining to the Daniels payoff, and a second payoff to former Playboy playmate Karen McDougal. The New York case has to do with checks submitted to Cohen from Trump that were inaccurately documented and described as legal fees, rather than as reimbursements for payoffs. By itself these transgressions are simple misdemeanors, but the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg, has brought them forward as felonies, arguing that they were done in service of an “unlawful” attempt to impact the outcome of the 2016 election. It’s hard to assess the specifics of this claim since Bragg has not yet made public his legal argument.

Related to your question about progressives needing to pay attention to this issue — none of these charges, against Cohen or Trump, are terribly “sexy” in the grand scheme of Trump’s larger transgressions, including his attempts to subvert the 2020 election and commit electoral fraud in Georgia, or his stoking of an insurrection on January 6. The New York charges are significant, nonetheless. The U.S. prides itself in being a nation of laws, so to allow Trump to avoid legal prosecution for any election-related crimes that he may have committed would set a dangerous precedent.

What is unique about the pending charges on Trump in Georgia? Can you compare New York’s charges and the more than likely Georgia investigation? When it’s all said and done, how could both combined play out?

What’s happening in Georgia is a much bigger case, in my opinion, in terms of the grand scope of Trump’s crimes. We really don’t know the full scope of the Georgia case, because no charges have yet been filed against Trump yet. But from what we do know of what happened in Georgia, there’s ample reason to be concerned and to want to see Trump face justice for what he did.

At the center of this case are Trump’s actions themselves. He made an hour-long phone call following the 2020 presidential election to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, essentially demanding that Raffensperger hand Trump the state’s electoral votes. We know that Trump told Raffensperger that, “I just want to find 11,780 votes” that would help him prevail over Joe Biden. Trump insisted this was acceptable because “we won the state,” a baseless claim that was a significant part of Trump’s “Big Lie” election propaganda.

Not only did Trump try to defraud the state of Georgia by demanding that Raffensperger manufacture these votes for him. Trump also threatened the secretary of state, warning that a failure to produce these fictitious votes was a “criminal offense” and that Raffensperger’s failure to comply would put him at “a big risk.” As Raffensperger recounts, Trump’s threat was not idle in light of the death threats he and his family received at the time. “I felt then, and still believe today, that this was a threat. Others obviously thought so too, because some of Trump’s more radical followers responded as if it was their duty to carry out this threat.”

What’s unique about this case is that it gets to the heart of Trump’s efforts to undermine the electoral integrity of U.S. democracy. Most progressives I talk to are not happy with the state of U.S. democracy. They have long pointed to the “bourgeois democracy” in the United States as one that is largely nominal, and not substantively committed to representing the interests and needs of working-class, middle-class and poorer Americans. Their knock on this country has long been that it’s more of a plutocracy (rule by the rich) than a democracy.

Still, there’s a big difference between a bourgeois democracy and living in a de facto dictatorship in which a candidate like Trump is empowered to (shamelessly and criminally) manipulate election outcomes, contrary to mass preferences and voting patterns, and installs himself in power through coercion and insurrectionist violence. The poor state that U.S. democracy finds itself in can always get worse, which is why the Georgia case and potential federal charges against Trump for stoking an insurrection on January 6 are so important to confirming that this country is still minimally committed to the rule of law.

Regarding the question about how both cases may play out, my hope is that one of these legal venues secures a conviction against Trump. There are numerous ways that he could be convicted of a felony, related to violating election law, attempting to defraud an election and seeking to illegally overturn an election through insurrectionist violence. If Trump were to walk away unscathed from all these charges (or any that may be forthcoming), it would be a tremendous miscarriage of justice.

How do the Trump inquiries relate to your own studies and work as a scholar of political science?

Much of my work focuses on the rise of authoritarianism and fascism in U.S. politics. I think the Georgia case is highly relevant to a discussion of authoritarianism. The special grand jury that was tasked with investigating Trump is not even responsible for bringing forward criminal charges against the former president. It was created simply to investigate Trump for potential wrongdoing. A separate grand jury would be required to consider the evidence, and to bring charges, and then a third jury would be needed to hear the charges and render a verdict.

Trump and his lawyers have filed motions to get Fani Willis (the Fulton County district attorney responsible for investigating Trump) and the judge overseeing the investigation expelled from the case. They want the special grand jury’s investigative report on Trump to be expunged from the court proceedings. And they want to prohibit that evidence from being introduced in any court of law in the future.

Trump’s lawyers have offered all types of baseless claims to justify these demands. They claim that the jury process was too secretive. They say that the whole process violates Trump’s 14th Amendment due process rights. They assert that Willis is biased against Trump. And they maintain that Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp should have gotten “sovereign immunity” from testifying in the case. Think about what they’re trying to do here for a minute. We’re not even talking about formally bringing charges against Trump at this stage of the game. We’re talking about the ability to investigate Trump and whether he committed felonies related to his actions in the aftermath of the 2020 election.

As Willis worries, Trump and his lawyers “seek to ‘restrain’ a criminal investigation before any charges are filed or even sought; they ask that the judicial system place them above and apart from the common administration of the criminal law.” This is a fundamentally sound understanding of what’s at stake in this case. Trump is engaged in an authoritarian effort to prohibit even the investigation of his actions related to 2020. He feels he should be free to manipulate election outcomes with impunity, the rule of law and democracy be damned.

Ultimately, in your view, what kind of impact will the illegal maneuvers of Trump have on voters for the 2024 presidential election? Is it true that the investigations help Trump? Can you address this question while also focusing on the myth that working-class people support Trump and Trumpism?

I’ve spent the greater part of the last decade studying Trump’s supporters through countless polls and polling questions measuring support for, and willingness to vote for Trump. There is very little evidence that Trump supporters are more likely to be financially insecure or desperate. They are largely middle to middle-upper and upper-income earners. And there’s little evidence in the dozens of different financial metrics I’ve looked at in surveys over the last decade that his supporters are suffering from financial struggles. There is evidence that his supporters are more likely to be white, occupationally stressed from holding a second job or working overtime, and to subscribe to blanket attacks on people of color and immigrants as harmful to society.

A plausible interpretation of these data is that many of his supporters have a vague sense of unhappiness because they have been getting shafted, like 95 percent of Americans, when it comes to the occupational stresses that accompany the rise of neoliberal plutocracy. And that they are looking for convenient scapegoats, including people of color and immigrants. Most of them buy hook, line and sinker into the simplistic and propagandistic white nationalist messaging of the GOP that demonizes people of color and promises to solve the problems of working Americans by attacking Black people and immigrants.

On to the coming election, it’s impossible to tell at this stage of the game how this all shakes out. There are too many moving parts between the federal, Georgia and New York investigations of Trump to know what will happen. One thing that seems clear to me is that none of these charges are likely to have much of an impact on Trump’s core voters. They concluded long ago that the “deep state” is out to get Trump, that evidence is being manufactured and manipulated against him in a “witch hunt” to destroy former president, and that these “attacks” on Trump are entirely motivated by Democratic partisanship.

Trump traffics in this sort of conspiratorial rhetoric routinely. His hardcore supporters live in an alternate reality in which his claims are true simply because Trump says so. For those who doubt this, I’d direct their attention to polling during Trump’s term revealing that nearly two-thirds of Trump’s supporters said there was nothing that he could possibly do that would make them reconsider their support for the former president. That is a cultist level of devotion that is independent of any sort of evidentiary threshold that might make someone reconsider their support for him.

The legal cases in question could take years to play out, so it’s not even clear, if Trump was convicted, that these cases would impact his ability to campaign in 2024. Concerning your question about whether this all could help Trump, I think the answer is yes and no. I think that all these charges will serve as motivation for his base to recommit to the embattled former president, and the legal actions against him will be rolled into a larger narrative that the criminal system is fundamentally biased and incapable of dealing fairly with Trump or his January 6 insurrectionist supporters.

On the other hand, I think for a lot of people who claim to be independents but consistently lean Republican in their voting habits, the charges against Trump will work against him and have a negative impact on how they see the president. Many of these people may choose another candidate in primary races come 2024. They may not vote for Trump in the general election if he prevails in the primaries, and they may vote either for Biden, a third party or independent candidate, or not vote at all.

My fear is that we are past the point of electoral integrity mattering and a majority vote against Trump determining the outcome in 2024. One of the two major parties in this country is committed to normalizing fantastically absurd election propaganda that depicts elections as illegitimate if they result in Republican defeats. It’s impossible to fully understand what the consequences of this propaganda campaign will be in the future. One possibility is that state electoral officials may feel untethered from conferring their states’ electoral votes toward the popular vote winner. If even one state does this in 2024 and nullifies a majority vote, it would set a horrible precedent for the integrity of elections, allowing a candidate who clearly lost to prevail and empowering states across the board to ignore the voice of the people.

If this happens through election fraud of the kind Trump tried to get away with in Georgia, there will be little left of the remnants of U.S. democracy to defend. We will be living in a de facto dictatorship. We should all be deeply worried about this possibility and the dangers of undermining public confidence in the electoral process. This is the politics of authoritarianism, mainstreamed by one of the two major parties in the U.S.