Even after all these years of Donald Trump’s extremist attacks on American democracy and decency itself, the four-count criminal indictment handed down by a federal grand jury on Tuesday that accused the former president of conspiring to overturn the 2020 election results still is a shocking development. It would be quite the capstone to the Trump era. Yet despite these criminal charges, the Trump era is not yet over. There are motions and presumably trials (in this case and others) to come, as well as the entire 2024 election. Trump has not left the building. And whatever happens in the various courtrooms, a key question remains: Will this latest—and most serious—indictment of Trump do anything to break his hold on the paranoid and irrational imagination of tens of millions of Americans?
Of all the Trump indictments—which also cover his payment of hush money to a porn star to cover up an alleged extramarital affair and his alleged theft of classified documents—this new set of charges addresses the most fundamental threat he has posed on American democracy. He falsely claimed the 2020 election was stolen from him. He schemed to overturn legitimate vote counts. And he riled up his followers to such an extent that thousands stormed the Capitol and violently tried to prevent the peaceful transfer of power—a bedrock principle of American society.
But this alleged crime was not Trump’s doing alone. He had millions of accomplices: all those Americans who bought his bogus claims about the election.
Trump was only able to promote the biggest con of his career because there was an audience of Republican voters who believed his bunk. The GOP establishment did not oppose Trump’s disinformation operation—his assertions that he had actually won the election and his many unsubstantiated allegations of fraud—because it feared the party’s base. After the 2020 election, as Trump poisoned the national discourse with his conspiracy theories, Republican leaders did not counter his lies out of fear of alienating Trump’s voters. This afforded Trump the political space to mount assorted and overlapping plots to retain power. With this indictment, special counsel Jack Smith alleges these actions were crimes. And when those allegedly illegal schemes failed, Trump’s cultish loyalists provided the shock troops for the January 6 insurrectionist riot that nearly prevented the certification of Joe Biden’s victory.
This historic indictment is a healthy sign that conspiracies to overturn elections or mount coups will not be tolerated. Better late than never, these charges deliver a powerful message: the man in charge of safeguarding the Constitution criminally tried to sabotage it. There perhaps is no better summation of Trump’s presidency. Yet, ultimately, Trump is not the main danger. He may be brought to justice via this prosecution. But that act alone won’t protect the constitutional order.
Trump will turn this indictment, as he has done so with his previous indictments, into yet more proof that he is the target of a corrupt and nefarious cabal aiming to destroy the country. The Deep State, Democrats, the media, antifa, communists, Black radicals, and pedophiles—they are, in his BS narrative, arrayed against him and against real Americans. In Trump’s telling, the only way to thwart these evildoers was to declare the election rigged and foment the paranoia and outrage that led to the seditious January 6 attack on the US Capitol.
Trump had no evidence of this diabolical election-stealing plot; he had no rational argument. His claims were debunked again and again. (His own consigliere, Rudy Giuliani, has admitted to making false allegations of election theft.) Nevertheless, millions of Americans accepted this false reality—and still do. They have been under a Trump trance, transfixed by his lies and false statements and impervious to actual facts. This latest indictment will confirm their irrational beliefs.
A recent poll found that zero percent—yes, zero percent—of MAGA Republicans think that Trump has committed serious federal crimes. Only 2 percent of his loyalists concede that he did “something wrong” regarding the handling of classified documents. More than 9 out of 10 of these people said Republicans must stand behind Trump in the face of the investigations. And three quarters of all likely Republicans voters said Trump, following the 2020 elections, was legitimately contesting the results. (That number went up to 83 percent for Republicans who are heavy viewers of Fox News.)
One survey after another shows that Republicans and conservatives are trapped in the muck of Trump conspiracism. Half of Republicans say that Trump did not keep classified documents at Mar-a-Lago—a sign of willful blindness. Eighteen million Americans believe the use of force to restore Trump to the White House would be justified—an uptick of about 50 percent over the past few months. About 90 percent of Trump’s most radical supporters see the federal government as run by a supposed Deep State full of immoral schemers. Twelve percent of Americans agreed with this statement: “A secret group of Satan-worshiping pedophiles is ruling the US government.” (A survey conducted last year found that half of Republicans and more than half of Trump 2020 voters believed prominent Democrats were involved in secret pedophilia rings.) A separate poll notes that two-thirds of Republicans still believe Trump’s bogus and debunked claim that President Joe Biden won the 2020 election by fraud.
Trump has encouraged and exploited all this crap. He would be nowhere if there was not a market for his outrageous and baseless lies. Millions of Americans who are mired in this lunacy aided and abetted Trump’s assault on the republic. When Richard Nixon was exposed as a crook—and named an unindicted co-conspirator—his support among Republican voters and officeholders sharply eroded. Those Americans eventually accepted the investigations of Nixon’s criminality and the prosecutions of his henchmen as legitimate enterprises and turned (somewhat gradually) against him.
Not this time. As news of the latest indictment hit, Trump’s campaign released a statement declaring the “persecutions of President Trump and his supporters is reminiscent of Nazi Germany in the 1930s, the former Soviet Union, and other authoritarian, dictatorial regimes.” It added, “These un-American witch hunts will fail and President Trump will be re-elected to the White House so he can save our Country from the abuse, incompetence, and corruption that is running through the veins of our Country at levels never seen before.” His people will absorb and embrace this hyperbolic, hate-mongering, demagogic junk. These Americans are threats to the American project.
Once upon a time, criminal indictments would stop a political campaign dead in its tracks. Not anymore. The Trump crusade is chugging ahead, as this narcissistic, grievance-stirring wannabe-autocrat strives to return to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and implement his out-in-the-open plan to transform the federal government into an authoritarian regime. And millions will cheer him on, perhaps even more loudly after he has become the first former president (and current presidential candidate) to be criminally charged as a domestic enemy of the US Constitution. The Trump spell will not be broken. The wheels of justice, which grind exceedingly slow but exceedingly fine, are (finally!) addressing Trump’s alleged crimes. But it will take more than justice to defeat Trumpism.