Trump indicted, democracy tainted
Xin Ping
The U.S. Supreme Court is seen on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., May 2, 2023. /AP
The U.S. Supreme Court is seen on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., May 2, 2023. /AP

The U.S. Supreme Court is seen on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., May 2, 2023. /AP

Editor's note: Xin Ping is a commentator on international affairs, writing regularly for Xinhua News Agency, CGTN, Global Times, China Daily etc. The article reflects the author's views and not necessarily those of CGTN.

On May 9, 2023, a U.S. federal jury found former President Donald Trump liable for sexual assault. This latest verdict, together with the criminal prosecution against him, shocked the world. Trump, being no normal politician but a former president and candidate for the next presidential election, has violated the U.S. civil and criminal law. Something novel in American history!

Many accuse him of tainting the U.S. democracy. But is it Trump's fault, or is it the system itself, that caused the collapse of democracy? How come those who broke the law could have reached the pinnacle of power?

All about money

Jimmy Carter, the 39th U.S. President, put it this way: "We've become, now, an oligarchy instead of a democracy... It violates the essence of what made America a great country in its political system. Now it's just an oligarchy with unlimited political bribery being the essence of getting the nominations or electing the president."

In the U.S., where financial contributions are rampant, billionaires and interest groups can pave their way with money and easily manipulate elections. As much as $14 billion were spent on the 2020 presidential election and $16.7 billion on the 2022 mid-term by the two political parties, a sum that dwarfs the overall output of even a country. More than 90 percent of Congress candidates won their elections by "spending money."

Election, something that should be sacred and solemn, has become a stage for political grandstanding. Politicians who stay on the stage can only be the ones good at fanning public anger, faking and performing, while dedicating most of their energy to serving their real patrons.

Donald Trump has been widely criticized for stoking riots on Capitol Hill, interfering in vote counting, hiding confidential documents, and committing tax evasion. But ironically, the popularity of such a provocateur has risen instead of falling. He had raised even more funds after being prosecuted. His approval ratings have taken a significant lead in the Republican Party, promising greater chance to win the primary, or even the White House, again.

Here is the essence of the U.S. electoral system: the more votes you can get, whatever it takes, the more money you will be rewarded with. Meritocracy gives way to power-for-money transactions, and real talents lose out to strong financial resources. Voters can only let their future be planned by the rich.

The U.S. Capitol is seen during the voting on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., May 11, 2023. /AP
The U.S. Capitol is seen during the voting on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., May 11, 2023. /AP

The U.S. Capitol is seen during the voting on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., May 11, 2023. /AP

Power is a weapon

After the War of Independence, the U.S. established its hard-won democracy on the basis of separation of powers. The theory was to reach a balance that prevents the dominance of any of the powers from harming democracy. However, Democrats and Republicans alike have come to use this power-checking mechanism as a weapon to attack each other, at the cost of high-quality governance that the people sincerely expect and should have obtained. 

On the one hand, there is an endless struggle between the executive and legislative branches, especially when each is controlled by a different party. After the 2022 mid-terms, for example, the Republicans regained control of the House and used it as a major weapon to contain the Biden administration. Soon after Trump's property was ransacked on suspicion of hiding confidential documents, Congress hyped the discovery of confidential documents in Biden's residence and launched an investigation into the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan under Biden's order. During the all-out row on raising the debt ceiling, Trump was indicted by a Manhattan grand jury in New York. An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. What a busy political arena to behold.

On the other hand, the judiciary hardly stays independent. Trump's criminal prosecution once again reveals how judicial power is weaponized. A Gallup poll shows that people's trust in the rulings of the Federal Supreme Court dropped from 40 percent in 2020 to 25 percent two years later.

Oppose for the sake of opposing

Speaking of "the baneful effects of the spirit of party," George Washington warned in his farewell address: "It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but in those of the popular form it is seen in its greatest rankness and is truly their worst enemy."

More than 200 years later, Washington's words come true. Recent years have seen the Democratic and Republican parties drifting wider and wider apart on the political spectrum. They disagree on almost every issue. Opposing for the sake of opposing has hamstrung decision-making and governance. Even on life-threatening issues such as COVID-19, the two parties have been blaming each other, making it difficult to implement any plan.

Polls show that 87 percent of Democrats believe the investigations against Trump are fair, while 80 percent of Republicans see them as "witch hunts." A huge crack has appeared in the political foundation of the United States, a "split country" to some extent.

It is not surprising that the pride of the U.S. public has dropped sharply, from 90 percent in 2002 to 54 percent in 2022. Even leaders from other countries, after seeing January 6, have come to doubt U.S. democracy. It is no longer deemed a model. Trump's trial was just another expected blow. It is not that Trump has tarnished democracy, but that the U.S. democracy has long been stained with rust.

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