We are at the crossroads. And we appear headed toward further division and destruction. But it is not too late for us to choose to find common ground with each other.
As a society, we begin either to take seriously the work of rebuilding Americans’ badly eroded trust in our institutions. Or we continue to pursue our political vendettas blind to the fact that we have entered a dangerous time for our democracy.
It’s clear to me, after watching news coverage of the indictment, that many media commentators have not yet grasped the dangers of this moment. Perhaps after the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, the traumas of 2020 and the entire dramatic arc of Trump’s presidency, it’s hard to see one more scandal involving the former president as fundamentally changing much of anything.
But it would be a serious mistake for the shepherds of our public discourse to fail to take note of the peril of this particular turn in our politics and what it means for American democracy.
Unlike the Manhattan district attorney’s earlier indictment of Trump, the former president’s legal exposure in the handling of classified documents and possible obstruction of justice appears to be significant. The evidence against Trump, who faces 37 felony counts, seems to be substantial.
Former Trump administration Attorney General Bill Barr has rendered a dire assessment of Trump’s prospects for acquittal: “The government’s agenda was to protect those documents and get them out. … We have to wait and see what the defense says, and what proves to be true, but I do think that … if even half of it is true, then he’s toast. … It’s a very detailed indictment and it’s very, very damning.”
That reality dramatically raises the stakes of the 2024 presidential election − for both Trump and the nation.
Trump may land in prison
Trump faces the real prospect of prison time if he is convicted. He must win the 2024 presidential election to pardon himself or help another Republican win the White House next year to be in line for a pardon. For those concerned that Trump will say and do anything in pursuit of power, how much more fearful ought Americans to be now that Trump must gain power to shield himself from possibly spending the rest of his life in prison?
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But for many ordinary Republicans, the case against Trump is an egregious example of a double standard applied to Republicans generally and Trump specifically in the dispensation of justice.
“Is that a national security threat to the extent that the former president of the United States, and the current Republican front-runner for the nomination, ought to be indicted on criminal charges?” Shapiro said. “The answer is no. And the reason the answer is no is because we have the disparate treatment of those other public officials, including most egregiously Hillary Clinton.”
You don’t need to be a Trump supporter to understand how such arguments could play out among conservatives.
“Most Republicans believe that the law now is a political tool,” Graham said on ABC News, “that the people in charge have their thumb on the scale.”
It is in this climate that President Joe Biden has seen fit to allow the federal prosecution of his foremost political opponent as we move toward the 2024 election. That is being done in the name of justice and ensuring that no one is above the law.
Yet, Democrats and Republicans, whether or not one agrees with them, have reasons to believe that the other side holds its own leaders above the law.
Dear fellow conservatives:Please stop complaining about Hillary Clinton
Here then is the moment we find ourselves in as a nation: The sitting president of the United States stands behind the prosecution of a former president and his leading opponent in the upcoming election. The former president, with the most loyal following in all of American politics, must achieve reelection to be certain of avoiding jail.
These are not the ideal circumstances for expecting politicians of either party to play by the rules of fairness and civility.
“They figured that the way they’re gonna stop us is by using what’s called ‘warfare.’ And that’s what it is, this is warfare for the law,” Trump said of the special counsel’s investigation.
Whether this is fair or not, Trump is correct that our politics feel more and more like war. In this scenario, one side or the other must effectively be vanquished. There is no in between.
Americans’ distrust of major institutions is at dangerous levels
The politics that will unfold from these developments is potentially apocalyptic and will bring out the worst in each side. But we could potentially withstand a legal showdown between our two leading presidential candidates if Americans’ confidence in the Justice Department, in the electoral system, in the news media and in our political parties was strong.
It is not.
As it stands, many Americans do not trust any of our major institutions, both because they divide us and because we are already divided.
The hurricane of polarization might soon grow even more intense. Trump could lose reelection and find himself imprisoned. In that case, millions of Americans will feel that their chosen candidate was targeted and incarcerated by a malicious government. Then what will they do?
Then again, Trump may yet be elected president, with power over his enemies and little reason to be generous. What consequences will millions of Americans fear then?
Frightening and illegitimate: This is how many of our fellow citizens are likely to see the next president of the United States.
We probably cannot avert this storm. But we can push against the tide, press for the reform of our institutions and rebuild trust among the American people. Even if that sounds impossible, it is what we have to do.
If America were blessed with a news media that humanized the American people to each other, reflecting thoughtfully on the sources of our distrust of each other in ways that do not reduce us to stereotypes, how much harder would it be for politicians to pit us against one another through propaganda and culture war posturing?
If America had a Department of Justice that were concerned with the perception of unequal justice and preserving the social cohesion of the American people, it is possible we would not have seen the indictment of a former president under these circumstances.
Of course, one has to respect the argument that justice must be done, though heaven and earth fall. But former Vice President Mike Pence’s demand that Attorney General Merrick Garland speak directly to the American people – about the reasons for the Trump prosecution and why it is not political – is reasonable.
Even if only 5% of Americans took the explanation seriously, anything that moves the needle toward trust and transparency in this environment is worth doing.
If the American people were united – not in political agreement but in human empathy – we might better trust the poll workers and ballot counters who run our electoral system on the ground.
If we could humanize our disagreements, we might not leap to the conclusion that our neighbors are racist or that our grade school teachers are seeking to indoctrinate our children.
The country would not feel like it is falling apart, even if our leaders seem to be pulling us down.
There is work taking place across America to restore the bonds of trust among the American people. From July 5 to July 8, near the site of the Battle of Gettysburg, Braver Angels (for which I work) will gather possibly the largest group in American history of leaders and ordinary citizens committed to restoring goodwill and collaboration among the American people.
Hundreds of other organizations such as the Listen First Coalition, New Pluralists and Starts with Us represent a starting point for those who wish to bridge the toxic partisan divide. It is a drop in the bucket compared with what might be needed. But it is a start.
We are at the crossroads. And we appear headed toward further division and destruction. But it is not too late for us to choose to find common ground with each other − for the sake of our nation and ourselves.