Donald Trump has been indicted. And everyone wants to know: What does it really mean for America?
The politics of Trumpism have long combined norm violations and convention-breaking behavior with the standard politics of the day: hyper-partisanship, and a political establishment that responds to the incentives of the environment around them. The narratives that are emerging around Trump’s indictment are no exception. Commentators consistently emphasize two features: the unprecedented nature of the indictment, and its place in the longer arc of Trump’s political career. Trump himself referred to that arc when he referred to his trip down the golden escalator in 2015 to announce his presidential candidacy, claiming that a “witch hunt” against him had begun then. Consistent anti-Trump conservative David French referred to this moment in an interview with Ezra Klein that aired before the indictment, as well: “And the real failure that we have seen in the Trump presidency, going from when he came down the escalator, was a large scale failure of moral courage, time and time and time again.”
French’s comments highlight something important about the stories we are telling about the Trump presidency: They suggest that what we have been experiencing is what I’ve been thinking of as a “politics of revelation.” Observers of American politics have come to react to Trump events as if they simply carve away stone to reveal the statue — the facts and features of American politics — that were there all along. As someone who’s spent my career thinking about the stories we tell about political events, especially elections, I’ve seen how this conversation has evolved since the 2016 election. Trump’s election was treated as a window into neglected elements of the national soul, revealing unwavering truths about how Americans think about partisanship, race and democracy.
Trump’s actions have remained consistent over time. He started his presidential bid with a clear track record on race and immigration, paying debts, and following the law. At nearly every turn, Trump has been exactly who his words and actions told us who he was. It’s the response to them that has changed, and that has told us who we are.
What has surprised at least some observers is the reaction to Trump from political leaders, the media and the public. From insulting John McCain in 2015 to the Access Hollywood tape to the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., to Jan. 6, elected Republicans have mostly kept their criticisms tepid, and the president’s public support has remained steady. The media has often relied on the “unprecedented” frame, talking about Trump’s actions as norm-breaking when they should have talked about them as republic-breaking.
The politics of revelation casts Trump as not a catalyst of change but a mirror to how we have changed. At the heart of this narrative is the idea that partisan ties overwhelm everything. And this perspective has some basis in political science. Trump’s approval ratings in office were incredibly stable, regardless of positive or negative events. It’s quite striking when you contrast this with the approval patterns for Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan — you can identify events and economic changes in the dips and climbs. For Trump — and Obama, too, for that matter — almost nothing seems to move the needle. The “doom loop” narrative of party politics advanced by New America’s Lee Drutman identifies this as one of the disadvantages of two-party politics. Writing about the 2020 election, John Sides, Chris Tausanovitch and Lynn Vavreck find a calcification of politics, where voters’ attitudes and choices reflect long-standing factors like racial views and partisanship, and don’t change very much in response to major events. Partisanship and Trump approval dampened the impact of the economy on vote choices, and, despite very different circumstances, voters were remarkably consistent in their 2016 and 2020 votes.
These findings lend credence to the idea that our politics has become a politics of revelation: That the latest Trump scandal will do little to change how people think, and will instead only further show the real nature of our politics and values. That is, it will show that “lol nothing matters” and that Americans prefer to defend their teams rather than preserve their democracy.
The 2022 midterm elections challenged this narrative a bit, and that suggests we’re capable of moving beyond the politics of revelation. Split-ticket voting came back, suggesting that voters could cross party lines when they didn’t like the candidates. Some of the most extreme candidates — those who had expressed views on elections, democracy and abortion that ran counter to public opinion — won fewer votes than their more mainstream counterparts. The result was not just that election denial seemed like a losing brand. It also seemed like American politics could be made flexible and responsive again.
In this light, the first indictment of a former president provides an opportunity for the country not to just reveal itself, to stay stuck in a politics of revelation, but possibly to evolve beyond that in response to a new situation.
This could happen in two ways. First is the familiar question of whether partisanship will once again triumph over everything else. But the second test is a new one: whether we can figure out how to hold former presidents accountable for their actions. As many commentators have pointed out, it’s quite normal in the American system for governors and members of Congress to face consequences when they’ve broken the law. Prison time for former governors of Illinois is an especially bipartisan affair.
But it’s not an accident that the presidency has been the exception to this. Modern presidents are such powerful and ubiquitous figures, so synonymous with national identity, that the idea of holding them to account has only been seen as destabilizing. The Clinton impeachment was widely viewed as a political stunt, and any serious questions were obscured by national satisfaction with the economy and suspicion of the impeachment process. Upon leaving office, Clinton entered into a plea bargain to avoid indictment for lying under oath. Nixon and Watergate were taken much more seriously, but Ford chose to pardon his predecessor upon taking office, declaring that it was more important to move on than to spend more time facing up to what the office of the presidency could be, and, in fact, had become.
Presidents, unlike members of Congress (and some governors) are also term-limited, which means that they will become ex-presidents in a fairly predictable timeframe. This means there are strong incentives to avoid any post-presidential legal processes that could be seen as politicized (or, indeed, be politicized) turning the legal system into a political tool to punish opponents. In sum, we’ve treated the presidency, including the post-presidency, as if it were too big to fail. The Trump indictment pushes our political system in a new direction, and offers us a chance to rethink power and accountability.
In other words, there are real downsides to adopting a framing of Trump’s indictment that casts it as a process of revealing more about the American public, rather than a genuine political development in and of itself. We already have evidence that while partisanship matters a great deal and structures our politics, it doesn’t beat out every factor every time. Norms can change, and the politics of the presidency have changed in response to shifting expectations. Many people may have been surprised at the response — or lack thereof — to Trump’s past scandals and statements. But now we know who Trump is, and how his party responds to him, and can move forward.
What lies ahead will likely still be deeply partisan, and Trump’s most loyal supporters will rally to his side. But not everyone will, and the decisions of legal and political actors, media and ordinary citizens almost certainly will shape what, if anything, matters for preserving accountability in American politics.
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