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Trump’s Courtroom Drama

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Going into the 2024 presidential election, Donald Trump is facing a growing list of legal woes. In less than a year, he’s been faced with four criminal indictments over issues ranging from sex scandals to voter suppression. Trump’s PAC, Save America, spent over $20 million on legal fees in 2023, more than the RNC and DNC spent during that period combined.

Trump’s legal drama took a turn for the more dramatic at the end of October when three of his lawyers, Sidney Powell, Kenneth Chesebro, and Jenna Ellis, plead guilty in the Georgia case on election interference and are now serving as witnesses for the prosecution.

For working people horrified by the experience of Trump, these cases instill a sense of schadenfreude. However, while the court process has kept Trump off the campaign trail, it hasn’t stopped him from being the undisputed frontrunner of the Republican primary. While Trump deserves to be tried for his crimes, we can’t rely on the courts to save us.

The Story So Far

The first criminal indictment came on March 30 from a Manhattan grand jury. This was in conjunction with Trump’s alleged payment of hush money to suppress sex scandals during the 2016 presidential election. It’s the case that initiated the tradition of Trump’s own lawyers pleading guilty and acting as witnesses for the prosecution. Of the four active criminal cases, it’s the flimsiest, falling under the routine corruption we’ve come to expect in crooked politicians.

On June 8, a second indictment came from the federal district court in Miami, in conjunction with Trump keeping classified White House documents in his Mar-a-Lago home. From the point of view of the ruling class, this is the most serious indictment, and is the best chance at sending Trump to prison. However, it’s also the case that least concerns ordinary working people, whose anger at Trump wasn’t motivated by any love for US intelligence services.

The third indictment, on August 1 from the federal district court in Washington, DC, was another matter. This one directly concerned Trump’s role in the January 6 insurrection and his wider attempts to overturn the 2020 election. While Trump’s inflammatory speeches at the time would be constitutionally-protected free speech in isolation, the case links those speeches to more direct criminal activity including sending fake slates of electors to keep himself in power. The conspiracy angle makes the case more sound than previous attempts to implicate Trump on his speeches alone

A fourth indictment came on August 14 from the Fulton County Superior Court in Georgia. The Georgia case covers similar ground to the DC case but through a different legal approach. Coming from a state court, it’s better protected from Trump interfering if he gets re-elected in 2024. Moreover, while Trump’s connection to January 6 is indirect enough to raise free speech concerns, his attempts at voter suppression in Georgia are far more brazen and direct, most notably his attempt to get secretary of state Brad Raffensperger to “find 11,780 votes.”

In addition to the four criminal cases, Trump faces a civil lawsuit in New York over fraudulent business practices, which threatens to gut Trump’s business empire. Trump was already found liable in another civil lawsuit from writer E. Jean Carroll over sexual assault and defamation, and a trial will be held in 2024 to determine damages. There are also cases in other states against the fake electors, even if they aren’t targeting Trump personally. And there are statewide efforts in progress to take Trump off the ballot because of his role in January 6.

It’s unlikely any of the cases will send Trump to jail before the election. However, the sheer quantity of cases playing out will certainly bog down Trump logistically during the election.

The Courts Won’t Save Us

For Democrats and that small sliver of anti-Trump Republicans, the hope is that the various court cases against Trump will re-affirm the lofty ideals of America’s institutions and prove that “nobody is above the law.” For the ruling class, Trump is extremely dangerous because, although he has greatly benefited from the existing system, he has nevertheless shown a willingness to destabilize it in the service of his own narrow political ambitions. Their goal is to send a message to Trump, and to anyone else, on the left or right, who would threaten to destabilize the system themselves.

On the other hand, many working people honestly want to see Trumpism defeated. Moreover, as recent social movements like the George Floyd rebellion failed to achieve meaningful gains, there is growing demoralization about the prospect of positive change. Under these circumstances, the idea that the courts could accomplish what protest couldn’t feels like a quick fix.

However, the courts won’t save us from Trumpism. Even if Trump does go to prison, they won’t be able to do away with the movement that brought Trump to power. Other Trumps will just fill the void. Meanwhile, at least some of the legal challenges set dangerous precedents that can be used against the left.

This is especially the case with the attempts to take Trump off the ballot. Unlike the DC and Georgia cases, these challenges rely on a loose interpretation of the post-Civil War 14th amendment, which bars people from holding office if they engage in “insurrection or rebellion.” 

In 2021, Seattle Democrats blocked with the right wing in an attempted recall of Councilmember Kshama Sawant. That recall campaign was spurred by Sawant’s involvement in the George Floyd protests, which recall supporters tried to identify with January 6. With a loose interpretation of “insurrection or rebellion,” such an appeal to the 14th amendment could be easily used against politicians who support confrontational labor, environmental, and anti-racist struggles. Fortunately, of all the cases against Trump, these are the least likely to succeed.

For both the ruling class and demoralized working people, there’s a hope that, even if Trump doesn’t go to jail, the moral taint of his criminal activity will render him unelectable. Unfortunately, this ignores the real reasons why Trump was able to gain support in the first place.

Within the Republican Party, the court cases have done nothing to stem the tide of Trump’s support. It has even given him a boost, reinforcing his image as an anti-establishment candidate. Trump still has a favorability rating of over 80% among Republicans. After Trump’s mugshot was released in the Georgia case in August, Trump used the publicity to rapidly raise $7.1 million for his presidential campaign.

Outside of the Republican Party, Trump is more hated, and there is a possibility that the court cases could weaken him in the general election. According to a poll by Bloomberg News and Morning Consult, concerns about Trump’s criminal activity are one of the main concerns driving opposition to Trump. However, concerns about the economy gave Trump a boost, due to memories of the 2020 stimulus checks. To indicate which issues matter more, the poll reveals that Trump currently leads Biden 47% to 43% among voters in the key “swing states” of Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

The Democratic Party and the courts are ultimately unable to provide a viable challenge to Trump because they only offer a different version of the same billionaire-dominated politics. To defeat Trumpism, we need a new party that – unlike the Democratic and Republican parties – is internally democratic, is funded by membership dues instead of corporate donations, and can serve as a launching point for mass working-class action against billionaires of all stripes.

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