Trump’s conviction has lessons for other democracies

The global gasp at Trump’s conviction was of people letting it sink in that someone once considered the most powerful person in the world could be brought to book.
Former US President Donald Trump walks to make comments to members of the media after a jury convicted him of felony crimes for falsifying business records in a scheme to illegally influence the 2016 election, at Manhattan Criminal Court, Thursday, May 30, 2024, in New York.
Former US President Donald Trump walks to make comments to members of the media after a jury convicted him of felony crimes for falsifying business records in a scheme to illegally influence the 2016 election, at Manhattan Criminal Court, Thursday, May 30, 2024, in New York.Photo | AP

A former US president’s criminal conviction by a jury of common citizens sends up a bright flare for accountability. Former state leaders have been handed guilty verdicts in at least half-a-dozen nations over the past decade, including Pakistan and Myanmar. But the global gasp at Donald Trump’s conviction was of people letting it sink in that someone once considered the most powerful person in the world could be brought to book. That too in a justice system often accused of favouring pale males gliding around in gilded halls.

The presumption of innocence holds till all chances of appeal have been exhausted, which can take several months for a litigious billionaire with a battery of lawyers. The sleaze underlying this New York case was spilt long back. The felony charge was for subversion of democratic process—paying hush money to muzzle a potentially damaging exposé before a poll. The state attorney’s win on that count is a reprieve in the international court of public opinion for a nation in need of one right now.

Whether the verdict will mean accountability in public life will first depend on the Republican party that is yet to formally nominate him and US adults who vote in November. Trump’s scorched earth policy against detractors has ensured that a thick red line has already fallen in behind him. Legally, the 77-year-old can still run for president, though ironically he may barely be able to vote because his home state of Florida bars felons from exercising the franchise, with a loophole for those not charged in the state. Given the growing share of Americans unhappy with a rematch between the presumptive nominees, countrywide electoral intent is torn in irresolute halves. One measure of the polarisation is in Trump’s claim to have raised more than $50 million right after the verdict.

There are two lessons for the rest of the world from the sordid saga. Strong institutional frameworks can withstand even the crudest assaults on democracy. It’s important to remind every generation that no one is above the law in a republic. And weakened institutions can bend established facts as pliable political putty. Which lesson nations choose to take to heart will decide the course of democracy in this global year of elections.

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