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Impact of Donald Trump charges years away from clarity

Donald Trump leaves Trump Tower in New York just before his court appearance on felony charges.
Bryan Woolston
Donald Trump leaves Trump Tower in New York just before his recent court appearance on felony charges.

The 34 charges former President Donald Trump now faces have fueled sweeping statements about the future of U.S. democracy.

Prosecutors may want to view the case against Trump absent a political lens, but in a Sound Ideas interview with WGLT's Charlie Schlenker, Illinois State University political scientist Lane Crothers said there is no way for prosecutors to avoid that framing.

"Nor would you expect there to be. You are dealing with political figures involved in a political dispute on political matters. There is no way they are not going to be," said Crothers. "Particularly given the degree our politics is team-oriented. It's like watching your own favorite sports franchise. It doesn't matter if the person you like obviously committed the foul. You still know the refs are wrong. And you still believe in your heart. And you still scream and howl about it even if the underlying crimes exist."

Crothers said not prosecuting also is a politically engaged issue.

Other countries have dealt with charges against high-level leaders. Like the U.S., the presumption is that if a leader is doing their official duties during their time in office, they are effectively immune from prosecution. In one recent case, the prime minister of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi was accused of an array of charges ranging from financial to the sexual abuse of minors.

Crothers noted even those were not pursued during Berlusconi's time as prime minister. Crothers said the Trump phenomenon is a dramatic, one but not the only one. Comparisons are difficult, he said, because of the confluence at the center of American media, politics, and money.

Yet since World War II, Crothers said other nations have not generally treated high-level corruption cases with the same verve, boisterous displays, and partisan furor as the U.S. is doing in the Trump case. Yet, he said the comparison is unfair.

"Because the social media era has transformed the nature of our communications. They are no longer elite dominated. They are no longer elite mediated. They are no longer elite gate-kept. It is a function of the attention economy now and so it is whatever draws the most hits," said Crothers.

And one nearly contemporaneous case in Israel involving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does have a lot of heat attached to it.

"It has been an extraordinary eruption, but that eruption has been on both sides of the equation where the defenders of Netanyahu are quite willing to go and do whatever they have to do to protect Netanyahu because they perceive him as someone who is advancing their agenda on the West Bank," said Crothers.

He said the world is only 16-17 years into the social media phenomenon. In that same period following the introduction of the car, society had not transformed. In contrast, social media has completely transformed the way society deals with information.

"Now, you are adding into it the question of deep fakes, AI-generated stuff and international trolls. It's a very different world that it was even 30 years ago," said Crothers.

One of the claims deployed to sway the public by both Trump supporters and opponents is that prosecuting or not prosecuting him will erode the strengths of U.S. institutions and public faith therein. He said after prosecutions of former leaders, the doom-saying prophecies have generally not come true in developed democracies similar to the U.S.

"In the moment, leaders claim that everything will fall apart. But in fact, there is always a next. Somebody comes along next. Somebody gets elected. Goodies get distributed in the system. And most of the people in the system come to accept that keeping it alive is more important than supporting the individual identity of any particular political leader," said Crothers.

In countries with less well-developed institutions, the situation is different.

“Those kinds of places are aware if you have selective political prosecutions, you either get perpetual political turmoil, or you get the kind of presidents who are trying to protect themselves by never leaving office, running political or military coups to stay in office. It's that level where that's more common,” said Crothers.

Crothers acknowledged there is a big gap between the scenarios in established democracies and developing ones.

“On the other hand, we have already had a president who didn’t want to leave,” said Crothers.

With the rise of populism, even institutions in countries that have a solidly democratic process have weakened. He said this is true even in the United States where, at the state levels, some leaders are working to undermine the norms and institutions of functional democracies.

The question whether win-at-all costs mentalities created in the U.S. from the Trump era will erode U.S. institutions is not answerable at the moment, he said.

“It is entirely possible that 10 years from now, you can look back at this as a seminal moment in the continuing decline in democratic institutions in the United States. It is also entirely possible that 10 years from now, people will look back and say, 'Oh, thank God once again, like what happened after Jan. 6, the institutions held,'” said Crothers.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.