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US elections 2024: Prosecuting Trump could backfire spectacularly

Making the US election effectively a referendum about Trump plays right into his hands. The more he is prosecuted, the more voters become convinced his deep-state claims are correct
A supporter of former President Donald Trump outside the Fulton County Jail, Atlanta, Georgia, ahead of his expected arrival for indictment on 24 August 2023 (AFP)
A supporter of former President Donald Trump outside the Fulton County Jail, Atlanta, Georgia, ahead of his expected arrival for indictment on 24 August 2023 (AFP)

The 2024 presidential election will probably be unique in US political history. If Donald Trump is once more the Republican Party’s candidate, he will be the first to simultaneously run for office and attend various courtrooms over the four criminal cases in which he has been indicted.

In recent American history, it is necessary to go back to 1968 to find an election so controversial and polarised as the one that will take place next year. At that time, the country was deeply divided by the war in Vietnam and the struggle for civil rights.

True, the climate was poisonous - the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago was turned into a battleground, and two leading national political figures, Martin Luther King Jr and Robert F Kennedy, were murdered - but neither the Republican candidate, Richard Nixon, nor his Democratic opponent, Hubert Humphrey, were ever considered a threat to US democracy.

In 1968, Black Americans and their supporters were fighting for their civil rights and, more generally, opposing what appeared as a failed, immoral and endless war. More than half a century later, America is facing another political crossroads that could set its future for decades.

The country appears to be in the middle of a cultural revolution. However, it is not yet clear if it resembles France's 18th-century revolution or China’s 20th-century one.

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The US, among many other things, is debating whether biological men can compete in women’s sport, and is discussing whether saying that there are only two genders is so outrageous as to justify being fired.

It is being polarised by the fact that more than two million people illegally enter the country each year; and also whether its electoral system can be credible with such a huge percentage of mail-in ballots.

Russian interference

In 2016, the FBI, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the corporate media accused Trump of being a Russian agent who was complicit in attempts to rig the 2016 election. Such accusations have apparently collapsed.

During the 2020 electoral campaign, the CIA and the corporate media claimed that the furore over the laptop of Joe Biden's son Hunter - that was alleged to contain evidence of violations of the Foreign Agent Registration Act (Fara), money laundering, and foreign bribes that helped Biden to become president - was Russian disinformation to rig the election.

Three years later, this claim has apparently been debunked, and the FBI and the DOJ are conveying the impression that they are trying to hide the very same laptop.

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In 2020, Trump claimed - without providing substantive evidence - that his "victory" at the election had been stolen by the “deep state”; now the DOJ is incriminating him for the assault on Congress on 6 January 2021, and for having interfered in Georgia’s vote count, among many other accusations.

If the US's internal situation does not find a correction course soon, what was observed in Congress’s hallways and stairwells in January 2021 could spread to every American city next year.

At that point, what happened in the 1960s in US southern states, where the National Guard was deployed by John F Kennedy, could occur again.

Considering how many weapons are legally owned by millions of Americans, the potential is explosive, to say the least.

If everything happening in America could be summarised in one sentence, that sentence would read: "America is going, or has already gone, crazy."

The problem for everybody else is that if America goes crazy, the rest of the world will not be immune.

Trump and Berlusconi

Most Republican supporters of Trump have already made up their minds: the Biden administration and the so-called deep state are mobilising to prevent Trump from being president again at any cost.

In other words, if their candidate should lose again next year in November, they will not accept the ballot result. 

On the other hand, Biden and the Democratic Party establishment and its supporters in the corporate media should understand, and quickly, that the more they prosecute Trump, the more many Americans will feel tempted to vote for him

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As an Italian who experienced more than 20 years of national politics dominated by the late Silvio Berlusconi, the humble advice I feel entitled to provide is: do not believe, even for a moment, in pursuing victory through the prosecution of your political adversary. In the case of Italy, this strategy against Berlusconi backfired massively. 

From 1994 onward, many Italian prosecutors, some of them with alleged political orientations, tried to eliminate Berlusconi from the political arena through criminal investigations.

The only thing they achieved was to increase exponentially his political popularity.

Repeated Italian elections were transformed into referendums about Berlusconi, with scant attention paid to policy and the problems the country faced.

To some extent, the US elections in 2016 and 2020 followed a similar path, and 2024 could see this toxic trend further reinforced.

In normal circumstances, it would be a simple issue of respecting the rule of law. In mature democracies, political candidates who are under criminal investigation should feel a responsibility to withdraw for the sake of democracy.

Relentless warriors

Unfortunately, we are no longer in an era of mature democracies but of rotten ones.

The rule of law has been ignored and/or twisted so many times in America (by Republicans and Democrats alike), that many people now believe this should not be a benchmark to stick to in assessing who deserves to run for political office.

This handout image released by the Fulton County Sheriff's Office on August 24, 2023 shows the booking photo of former US President Donald Trump. AFP 2.jpg
'A man who has even managed to use his mugshot as a main pillar of his political campaign.' Booking photo of former US President Donald Trump, 24 August 2023 (AFP)

Do not count on either Biden or Trump to drop out of the race based on issues to do with their advanced age or criminal problems.

Histrionic and vain personalities such as Berlusconi and Trump, who handle and manipulate the media very effectively, are at their best in such polarising situations, where their personalities can inevitably take centre stage.

The more they are cornered, the more they react and elicit admiration as relentless warriors, who never surrender. 

In this upside-down world, where social networks have systematically privileged image over content, and where people’s functional illiteracy has reached an all-time high, who could prevail in an electoral campaign against someone like Trump?

After all, this is a man who has even managed to use his mugshot as a main pillar of his political campaign.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Marco Carnelos is a former Italian diplomat. He has been assigned to Somalia, Australia and the United Nations. He served in the foreign policy staff of three Italian prime ministers between 1995 and 2011. More recently he has been Middle East peace process coordinator special envoy for Syria for the Italian government and, until November 2017, Italy's ambassador to Iraq.
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