Former President Donald Trump’s recent announcement that he would remain in the 2024 presidential race even if indicted in any of his ongoing civil and criminal investigations may seem ludicrous. Most politicians who are under investigation or facing criminal charges would think twice before running for office, not least because an electoral campaign brings with it unwanted scrutiny.
Yet strongmen like Trump are not most politicians. Think like a corrupt autocrat, and you will see the many advantages of running for office while tangling with the law. Such leaders have little interest in governing; their goal is always self-preservation. The temptation of having the power to shut down investigations, dismiss troublesome prosecutors and obtain immunity from prosecution has led former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to conduct successful electoral campaigns while under investigation.
The essence of authoritarianism is getting away with crimes.
It’s unsurprising that Trump would refuse to stand down no matter what happens. Legal experts agree that he could even run for office from behind bars, if any of his multiple civil and criminal investigations proceeds to a conviction. Anything is possible in the strongman world.
The essence of authoritarianism is getting away with crimes, and sending the message from the start that you believe you are above the law is a start. That was the purpose of Trump’s infamous 2016 boast that “I could stand on Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any followers, OK?” Developing a victimhood cult is also essential, so you can dismiss any dirt unearthed by the media or prosecutors as the fruit of a “witch hunt.”
With Trump in legal trouble, Georgia GOP targets prosecutorsMarch 7, 202305:05
“A friend of mine once said that I was the most persecuted person in the history of our country,” Trump declared last July at the Turning Point USA Student Action Summit. “Certainly, there’s been no politician or president treated like I’ve been treated.” There’s power in playing the victim: An NBC News poll registered an increase in Trump’s popularity within the GOP after the FBI search at Mar-a-Lago a month later. He returned to that message in his address on Saturday to this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference. “Our opponents do anything they can to hurt me politically,” he told the crowd, “because they’re afraid of me and they’re afraid of you.”
Berlusconi’s first government, from May-December 1994, set an example for authoritarians who damage democracy by making institutions and norms accommodate their personal financial needs and legal problems. In July of that year, with his holding company Fininvest was under investigation for bribery, he passed a decree to remove bribery and corruption as offenses warranting detention. Though public protests forced him to revoke the decree, such measures often held during his subsequent governments from 2001-2006 and 2008-2011.
The tax fraud and bribery charges he faced during his first election campaign didn’t hurt his electoral outcome -- quite the contrary.
Putin, too, was under investigation when he first ran for president in 1999, having been censured by his native St. Petersburg for collaborating with criminal organizations when he was deputy mayor. All was forgotten when he was swept into office posing as a strongman who would restore order after a series of terrifying apartment bombings around Moscow (bombings that may or may not have been carried out by his former charges in the FSB intelligence services). He won the March 2000 elections with about 53% of the vote, amid accusations of voter intimidation, ballot box stuffing and vote switching that presaged his later methods.
There is nothing more dangerous than an autocrat who personalizes power (“I am your justice,” Trump declared at CPAC) and promises retribution against enemies by using the state’s legal and penal tools for private ends. This seems to be the current strategy of Netanyahu, who also ran for office while under investigation for corruption. It is likely he has the charges he still faces in mind as he attempts to restrict the independence of the Israeli judiciary.
Trump is an old hand at this game. The tax fraud and bribery charges he faced during his first election campaign didn’t hurt his electoral outcome -- quite the contrary. The allure of the man who gets away with things that others cannot is a strongman staple, even as men like Trump work overtime to protect themselves from unwanted information coming to light. Governing in democracies, they must employ armies of legal, propaganda and security operatives to spin or suppress harmful information that may emerge. Many of these individuals have one degree or less of proximity to criminals -- Berlusconi’s right-hand man, the senator Marcello Dell’Utri, for example, was convicted of Mafia association. The strongman has far less chance of prosecution than his associates; they almost always take the fall for him, as Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen did in 2018. Making sure you have immunity, while those who have done your dirty work go to jail, is an essential strongman skill.
But while Trump’s behavior is far from unprecedented, we should not treat it as normal. “Normalization is actually decriminalization, a willingness to forget that such things were once thought of as lawless behavior,” I wrote in January 2017 — and that remains true today. We should take seriously all that a front-runner for the 2024 Republican nomination says about his intentions if he returns to the White House. Like other strongmen, he will focus on gaining control of public institutions to exact revenge. This is one meaning of his declaration at CPAC that “we’re going to finish what we started” and his styling of himself as a “warrior.” That means punishing all who did not collaborate with his attempt to overthrow the government and completing his capture of the judiciary so he can attain the strongman’s dream: being above prosecution altogether.