Special Counsel Jack Smith has sounded the call, but voters must answer it if they wish to preserve American democracy.By Tom Nichols
Donald Trump stands indicted for attempting to thwart the peaceful transfer of power and subvert the rights of American citizens. This is the moment that will decide our future as a democracy.
This Is the Case
Over the past year, state and federal prosecutors have alleged that Donald Trump went on something like a crime spree as a presidential candidate, as the sitting president, and then as a private citizen after his defeat. The charges, from Manhattan to Mar-a-Lago, include business fraud, the illegal retention of classified material, and the destruction of evidence.
All of these accusations, however, pale in importance next to the indictment handed down today.
Trump is accused of multiple conspiracies against the United States, all designed to keep him in power against the will of the voters and in violation of the Constitution. The former president—once our chief executive, the commander in chief, the leader we entrusted with the keys to nuclear hell—is accused of knowing that he lost a free and fair election, and, rather than transferring power to a duly elected successor, engaging in criminal plots against our democracy, all while firing up a mob that would later storm the Capitol. (The Trump campaign issued a rambling statement that called the charges “fake.”)
Long before now, however, Americans should have reached the conclusion, with or without a trial, that Trump is a menace to the United States and poisonous to our society. (Senator J. D. Vance of Ohio once referred to Trump as “cultural heroin,” but that was before he decided to seek power in the Republican Party.) The GOP base, controlled by Trump’s cult of personality, will likely never admit its mistake: As my colleague Peter Wehner writes, Trump’s record of “lawlessness and depravity” means nothing to Republicans. But other Republicans now, more than ever, face a moment of truth. They must decide if they are partisans or patriots. They can no longer claim to be both.
The rest of us, as a nation but also as individuals, can no longer indulge the pretense that Trump is just another Republican candidate, that supporting Donald Trump is just another political choice, and that agreeing with Trump’s attacks on our democracy is just a difference of opinion. (Those of us who share our views in the media have a particular duty to cease discussing Trump as if he were a normal candidate—or even a normal person—especially after today’s indictment.) I have long described Trump’s candidacies as moral choices and tests of civic character, but I have also cautioned that Americans, for the sake of social comity, should resist too many arguments about politics among themselves. I can no longer defend this advice.
The indictment handed down today challenges every American to put a shoulder to the wheel and defend our republic in every peaceful, legal, and civilized way they can. According to the charges, not only did Trump try to overturn the election; he presided over a clutch of co-conspirators who intended to put down any further challenges to Trump’s continued rule by force. According to the indictment:
The Deputy White House Counsel reiterated to Co-Conspirator 4 that there had not been outcome-determinative fraud in the election and that if the Defendant [Trump] remained in office nonetheless, there would be “riots in every major city in the United States.” Co-Conspirator 4 responded, “Well, [Deputy White House Counsel], that’s why there’s an Insurrection Act.”
The Insurrection Act allows the president to deploy the U.S. armed forces against American citizens. The alleged plot inside the White House was not merely to invalidate an election; it included the possibility of unleashing the American military against its own people.
This is why we can no longer merely roll our eyes when an annoying uncle rhapsodizes about stolen elections. We should not gently ask our parents if perhaps we might change the channel from Fox during dinner. We are not obligated to gingerly change the subject when an old friend goes on about “Demonrats” or the dire national-security implications around Hunter Biden’s genitalia. Enough of all this; we can love our friends and our family and our neighbors without accepting their terms of debate. To support Trump is to support sedition and violence, and we must be willing to speak this truth not only to power but to our fellow citizens.
Trump and his media enablers, of course, will fume that any criticism of choices made by millions of voters is uncivil and condescending—even as they paint other American citizens as traitors who support pedophiles and perverts. Trump has made such accusations, and the implied threat of violence behind them, part of the everyday American political environment. This brutish bullying is aimed at stopping the rest of us from speaking our mind. But after today, every American citizen who cares about the Constitution should affirm, without hesitation, that any form of association with Trump is reprehensible, that each of us will draw moral conclusions about anyone who continues to support him, and that these conclusions will guide both our political and our personal choices.
This is painful advice to give and to follow. No one, including me, wants to lose friends or chill valued relationships over so small a man as Trump. But our democracy is about to go into legal and electoral battle for its own survival. If we don’t speak up—to one another, as well as to the media and to our elected officials—and Trump defeats us all by regaining power and making a mockery of American democracy, then we’ll all have lost a lot more than a few friendships. We face in Trump a dedicated enemy of our Constitution, and if he returns to office, his next “administration” will be a gang of felons, goons, and resentful mediocrities, all of whom will gladly serve Trump’s sociopathic needs while greedily dividing the spoils of power.
In the 1982 film The Verdict, Paul Newman plays Frank Galvin, an ambulance-chasing attorney with an alcohol addiction who takes on what he thinks will be a routine malpractice suit and soon finds himself fighting for justice against powerful institutions determined to stop him. On the eve of the trial, all seems lost. His mentor and former partner tries to comfort him. “There’ll be other cases,” his friend says. Galvin knows better. “There are no other cases,” he says quietly, with his eyes closed. “This is the case.” He repeats this truth, whispering to himself, over and over: “There are no other cases. This is the case.”
Jack Smith has indicted Donald Trump for trying to overthrow our system of government. There are no other cases. This is the case.