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What happens if Former US President Donald Trump goes to jail?

Anna Karoline Fahrenkamp

Former US President Donald Trump made remarks of “I’m willing to go to jail (To protect US Democracy – The context)”, in a rally held in Iowa, Ohio. This comes after US District Judge Tanya Chutkan imposed a partial gag order on the Former President over the election interference case. However, prosecuting the Former US President has only increased his favourability, as polls have recently put him ahead as the prospective frontrunner nominee for the US Republican Party, even surpassing US President Joe Biden. Here, Anna Karoline Fahrenkamp covers the impact of the hypothetical possibility of the Former US President ending up in prison, and the impact this would have on US Politics and the 2024 Presidential Elections.

Although the future of the USA’s politics remains uncertain as 2024 nears, Donald Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric stays predictable. On October 16th, hours after a partial gag order, the former President declared: “I am willing to go to jail if that’s what it takes for our country to win and become a democracy again” at a rally in Clive, Iowa.

Though claiming to be protecting America’s democracy, Trump is charged with threatening exactly that; U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan imposed the gag order ahead of the upcoming trial in March 2024 for Trump’s alleged election interference in 2020. This is ‘the most serious restriction a court has placed on Trump’s incendiary rhetoric’, albeit a standard procedure in high-profile criminal cases.

The Former US President called the trials against him as “unconstitutional” and politically motivated.

Trump criticised the order, calling it “totally unconstitutional” and claiming it was politically (and personally) motivated, with the Trump campaign falsely claiming Biden had requested it. His public response elicited cheers at the rally, and, perhaps not surprisingly, many of his infamously loyal supporters claimed they would continue to support him to be their President – even from prison.

Trump’s remarks were made in response to his case in Washington DC, but come amid several high-profile investigations and legal proceedings. He denies all wrongdoing.

Judge Chutkan is overseeing the Justice Department’s 2020 election conspiracy case brought against the former president, stemming from the special counsel investigation into the January 6th 2021, Capitol attack, which recommended that law enforcement authorities complete their investigations and bring charges where appropriate. The Washington DC indictment charged Trump with alleged efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, including ‘Conspiracy to defraud the United States’.

Trump remains defiant over the gag order imposed on him, including the large number of cases launched against him.

The former President is facing 91 felony charges in 4 cases overall. His additional Fulton County, Georgia indictment also stemmed from his reaction to his 2020 electoral defeat. His other 2024 trials follow indictments in Manhattan involving financial dealings and in Miami for removing classified documents. He remains the subject of several investigations.

In framing his possible incarceration as a dramatic commitment to America becoming “a democracy again”, Trump denies what he has been indicted for: threatening America’s democracy. His rhetoric has become increasingly provocative as his campaign trail progresses and the trials near. Claiming the gag order to be “unconstitutional” and a violation of his First Amendment rights is, in America’s political climate and “post-truth conditions”, intentionally polarising.

Just as when inmate #PO1135809 (or Donald Trump) brazenly posted his mugshot on X, formerly known as Twitter, his apparent “willingness to go to jail” intentionally paints him as a victim of political persecution. At a rally in Derry, New Hampshire, he likened himself to Nelson Mandela, “because I’m doing it for a reason”; to compare himself to the Nobel Peace Prize-winning activist is downright ridiculous. His rhetoric remains as defiant as his expression in his mugshot as he continues to politicise the justice system.

The incendiary statements Trump has made are reminiscent of his responses to his other indictments, as his campaign has infamously weaponised rhetoric to spur up support. This has been dangerous to America’s democracy, the very thing he claims to be protecting: he is accused of threatening democracy on January 6th, which itself led to two of his indictments. Trump exploits the justice system for political gain: he continues to promote the “big lie” that the 2020 election was stolen (despite this being the grounds for two indictments) and has falsely blamed Biden for the “illegal witch hunt” brought against him.

However, the direct benefits of Trump’s recent defiance are limited. Following the Georgia indictment, Trump alleged that his “polls with the Black community have gone up four or five times” with little evidence. The marginally higher level of support was within margins of error or didn’t come from directly comparable polls. However, his lead in Republican Primaries polls (albeit already substantial) improved by 3 points over August. Notably, following the mugshot release, voters who believe Trump is guilty dropped by 11%, and Trump has successfully politicised the indictments, with 74% believing this is to stop him from running for President.

The prosecution cases against the Former US President appears to have increased his popularity, even surpassing the current US President Joe Biden’s popularity and polling rating.

Concurrently to the upcoming legal battles is the battle for the 2024 Presidency, with the initial Republican primaries set for early 2024. Trump’s support in the primaries has risen steadily and stood at 57.7% on October 24th, rising nearly 3% in October alone – evidently, the indictments are not alienating most of his supporters. It must, however, be noted that support has fallen marginally since his comments on the 16th of October, when it peaked at 58.4%.

The 2024 Presidential election, scheduled for November 5th, remains uncertain, as Trump’s trials will likely influence his candidacy and the election’s legitimacy. Currently, the polls stand in Trump’s favour: in polls from the 16th – 23rd of October, 45% favoured Trump, as opposed to 41% for Biden in a presidential election today. Presently, the consequences of being the first former president to face criminal charges do not seem to be hindering his support, despite most voters thinking he committed serious crimes; 53% think his actions ‘threatened American democracy’, the very thing he claims to be fighting for.

While Trump may be willing to go to jail, and his supporters ready to have him as their President from there, the implications for his potential Presidency remain unclear. Even if convicted in Manhattan, and though he cannot pardon himself for state crimes (in Georgia), a conviction would not necessarily hinder a Presidency. Though it has been argued that Trump would be disqualified from becoming President, the US establishment seems entirely unprepared to prevent it, and Trump’s success in politicising the justice system makes this unlikely.

The trials for early 2024 remain critical, as Trump’s support and campaign for Presidency seem unwavering. Whatever happens next will be unprecedented and shape America’s politics for years. Despite his alleged attempts to derail democracy, the chance that Trump may again become America’s democratically elected President remains very real.

Anna Karoline Fahrenkamp


Featured image courtesy of Ekaterina Bolovtsova on Pixels. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

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