What do Trump indictments mean for election, democracy?

Prof. William Howell talks about how charges might play out, how divided our nation truly is

In 1872, authorities arrested President Ulysses Grant for speeding in a horse buggy. A little more than a century later, a grand jury identified President Richard Nixon as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Watergate scandal. 

But former president Donald Trump’s indictments in early August for allegedly conspiring to overturn the 2020 election and in June on allegations of illegally possessing classified documents are without precedent. This is the first time a former president has been charged with federal crimes. Additional federal charges were filed in the case in July and Trump faces state indictments in New York over allegations of falsifying business records related to payments made to an adult film actress. And this week, a grand jury in Atlanta indicted him on charges that he and his supporters attempted to interfere with the state’s 2020 presidential election.

William Howell, the Sydney Stein Professor in American Politics at the Harris School of Public Policy and director of the Center for Effective Government, has written extensively about presidents and presidential power. That work includes, with Stanford University Political Science Professor Terry M. Moe, Presidents, Populism, and the Crisis of Democracy (University of Chicago Press, 2020) and Relic: How Our Constitution Undermines Effective Government—and Why We Need a More Powerful Presidency (Basic Books, 2016). 

In this Q&A, Howell unpacks the muted effect the Trump indictments have had on the 2024 presidential campaign, the threats they pose to the health of our democracy and the political divide among voters.   

You’ve noted, with a fair amount of surprise, that the federal and state charges against Donald Trump have had very little effect on the 2024 presidential race at this point; that the criminal charges against him at the federal level and in New York state actually are solidifying and accelerating his grip on power in the GOP. Surveys support that view. Why is that the case? 

Two reasons: Trump supporters have come to terms with these charges as part of his dominant narrative that he is an outsider who stands to lay waste to the vast corruption of the federal government and that his two impeachments and these indictments all serve as evidence in favor of the argument that his political opponents are doing everything they can to come after him to protect their privilege and corruption. At the same time, the indictments are making his Republican competitors struggle to find what lane to operate in: former New Jersey governor Chris Christie is the only person for whom these indictments clearly affirm his critique of Trump, and Christie is polling at about two percent. Everybody else is trying to speak out of both sides of their mouths. 

Do you sense that, over the long haul of the campaign, the impact of the indictments—and other, anticipated criminal allegations—will change? 

I think the indictments—no matter how many of them are filed—are probably weakly helpful for President Trump in the primaries because he’ll use them to raise money and solidify his base by insisting that his competitors close ranks around him. In the general election, I suspect the indictments are going to hurt him slightly. Independents may be persuaded by the facts about the aftermath of the election and the January 6 riot and think they can’t put up with it anymore or that they simply can’t put up with another four years of chaos under Trump. Having said that, the indictments stemming from Trump’s handling of classified documents could be much more harmful to him in the general election if evidence shows a larger plot by Trump to use the documents unethically or illegally. 

Modest as that impact may be on the electorate, can the indictments still play a significant role in the 2024 presidential race? 

Yes. Although we’re talking about a very small percentage of the American electorate for whom these allegations will make a difference, we continue to live on a knife’s edge. For a handful of independents in a few key states, their minds may be made up one way or another by these indictments. Either they think their significance is about Trump's unfitness for office and criminality or that they’re evidence of President Biden's weaponization of the U.S. Department of Justice. How those few voters perceive the indictments could be all it takes to win those key states. 

How do you expect the latest indictments to change the narrative about Trump, if at all? 

For the most part, I don’t expect the third indictment to have much of an impact the dynamics of the election, any more than the first or second did. But in one particular way, this new indictment might inflict a modicum of political damage on Trump. If the prosecutor can show that Trump’s arguments about the 2020 election were disingenuous, that he knew he had legitimately lost but still insisted otherwise, then a small segment of the American public may question his image as someone who speaks his mind and refuses to play by the rule, which, for some, has been his greatest asset. 

Do the allegations present other consequences? 

They pose serious downstream consequences to the health and well-being of our democracy. 

On the one hand, these indictments may exacerbate existing levels of polarization and a sense, particularly on the right, of grievance—a belief that all bets are off, because the powers of the state are being deployed for Biden’s personal political gain, and that, as Trump put it a few months ago, his presidency will serve as their retribution. On the other hand, it is essential for the health and wellbeing of our democracy that elected officials, when they behave in ways that may be criminal, are held to account. To not prosecute Trump in the face of evidence of malfeasance is itself risky, because it feeds a narrative that systems of accountability don't apply at the very top of our democracy and it provides a wide berth to the aspirations of future autocrats. 

My view is that in the face of compelling evidence of criminal wrongdoing, you’ve got to hold elected officials, including presidents, accountable. But, boy, you need to do so with a nose not just for legal considerations, but political considerations. 

What do the latest indictments say about Trump and democracy? 

My own view is that this latest indictment doesn’t say very much that is new about Trump—at least not for anyone who has been paying attention. Still, the indictment may matter a great deal down the road, when future presidents face accusations of abusing their power, and the nation tries to sort out what should be done about it. 

A great deal has been said and written about the deep political divide and polarization in this country. A poll from last summer found that divisions among Americans have worsened and that 43 percent of Americans think that a civil war in the next decade is at least somewhat likely. Have our political differences gotten that profound? 

We are decidedly not on the brink of a civil war. Those kinds of claims are exaggerated and potentially inflammatory. Here’s why: Most of the questions that lead to those survey results are poorly worded and are invitations for the respondents to express dismay and frustration with the state of our politics and opposition to the views of the opposite party. Those feelings are very real, but a lot of space exists between arguments and an actual willingness to take up arms. 

How then would you characterize the political landscape today? 

The truth is that when you actually calculate the policy views of most Americans, they come out to be reasonably moderate. Most of the research points to Republican elites being significantly more conservative than they were in 1970 and Democratic elites being somewhat more liberal. But that’s the elites: the historic polarization between the two major parties that we see at the elite level is not mirrored by the same levels of disagreement among Democratic and Republican voters. Strong evidence exists that both parties’ voters routinely update their views once they have reliable facts, and they are willing to compromise to make progress on an issue. 

Bottom line: Politicians and political elites are very polarized; society is not. Rank partisanship isn’t the force in American politics that it’s often said to be. 

This story originally appeared on the Harris School of Public Policy website