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Donald Trump's trial is a turning point in the battle for democracy

US allies horrified by the growing dysfunction of American democracy may breathe a sigh of relief following the stunning indictment of former president Donald Trump by a New York grand jury for charges relating to hush money paid to the adult film star Stormy Daniels.

In another (albeit less momentous) victory for the rule of law, on March 28 a District of Columbia court upheld the extradition of former Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo, who was arrested four years ago and faces money laundering and bribery charges related to the Brazilian construction company Odebrecht. Regardless of the outcomes, the fact that both former leaders will stand trial should help restore confidence in the United States’ commitment to defend democracy, at home and abroad.

To be sure, democratic allies like France, Taiwan, and South Korea have already charged and even convicted former heads of state. Nevertheless, Trump’s indictment, the first against a former or sitting US president, is a watershed moment. While the indictment is still sealed, and the contents of the case brought by New York County District Attorney Alvin L. Bragg are still unknown, no state district attorney or grand jury would indict a former president for anything less than a felony.

Some, particularly Trump and his supporters, have downplayed the importance of the case (“tawdry little escapades leading to tawdry little crimes”). But that is not the case. Trump has most likely been charged with campaign finance violations and/or other types of fraud, just like his longtime “fixer” and lawyer Michael Cohen, who pled guilty in August 2018 to arranging the payment to Daniels and was sentenced to three years in prison (most of which he spent in home confinement). Given that this is a New York State indictment, Trump cannot count on a future presidential pardon to save him, let alone pardon himself if he becomes president again. Moreover, since this case is likely to raise at least one other unlawful payment, this one to a former Playboy model, Karen McDougal, it probably will not help him regain the women’s vote, which he lost by 15 points in 2020.

Like the US, Peru is also trying to hold senior political figures accountable. In the same week that Trump was indicted and Toledo’s extradition was finalised, Peruvian prosecutors announced that they are investigating incumbent President Dina Boluarte and former President Pedro Castillo — also for alleged campaign finance violations during the 2021 presidential race. Every one of the six Peruvian presidents elected since 1990 is either in jail, has been in jail, or has faced a detention order.

Before his extradition was cleared, many Peruvians wrongly assumed that the US would protect Toledo, previously a visiting scholar at Stanford University (his alma mater) who had carefully cultivated a status as a democratic icon. (Stanford has since severed ties with Toledo, though individual professors may continue to support him however they wish). Similarly, many Americans also believed that Trump would never be charged and still doubt more indictments are in the works.

In both cases, the fair application of the law was essential. While the backgrounds, personalities, and partisan identities of the combative Trump and less confrontational Toledo could not be more different, they have adopted similar tactics to avoid due process. Both have claimed to be the victims of a politically motivated “witch hunt” and that their respective justice systems have been “weaponised” against them. Trump’s supporters have argued that his indictment shows that the US is now a “banana republic”, while Toledo claimed that Peru could no longer be considered an election-based system.

Both have also shown astonishing chutzpah in their efforts to avoid their day in court. Toledo once claimed that his alleged illicit funds came from Holocaust reparations given to an elderly Jewish relative by marriage (he appears to have abandoned this claim). And in a different New York attorney general’s fraud case against Trump and his company, Trump’s lawyers recently petitioned the judge to delay the October trial because they need more time to review the voluminous evidence (their request was denied).

But the similarities end there. Whereas Toledo’s past as a champion of Peruvian democracy adds a layer of poignancy to his fall from grace, Trump has always been exceptionally dangerous. Having shifted from being merely an admirer of autocrats to running as an openly fascist candidate in the 2024 presidential election, Trump now presents a clear and present danger to democratic governance worldwide. Despite his extremist rhetoric and promotion of political violence, some opponents tend to attack him as a clownish con artist or an ignorant buffoon, focusing on his style rather than the substance of his message.

The fascist playbook calls for frightening adversaries when the leader’s power seems to be at risk. Trump’s indictment will likely spur more lies and unhinged threats. In addition to boasting about his infallibility, Trump has already embraced tried and true staples of fascist rhetoric. He has called his detractors “enemies of the state”, used anti-Semitic dog whistles (Bragg, he falsely claimed, was “hand-picked and funded by George Soros”) and stunning racism (Trump called Bragg, Manhattan’s first Black district attorney, “an animal”), and accused his opponents of being “sick people”.

US democracy is in grave danger, imperiled by home-grown extremism, conspiracy theories, and the language of hate. The GOP is increasingly turning to white Christian nationalism, and one in five Republicans, as well as 13 per cent of Democrats, believe that political violence is justified “these days”. But Trump’s indictment could one day be remembered as a turning point. After all, as the judicial challenges facing former presidents in Peru and the US show, what separates democracies from autocracies is the ability to maintain the rule of law and hold the powerful to account.

Terry Lynn Karl