For the handful of readers who have not paid attention, this week former US president Donald Trump was indicted by a grand jury on criminal charges stemming from his role in a hush-money payoff to the former porn star Stormy Daniels. This is an historic event as no former president has previously been indicted. While there are many ways to understand what is occurring, one way is to see this as an American tragedy with no winners except possibly, Donald Trump himself.

To begin with, it is a tragedy for the American people and American democracy because it will sow further partisan divisions, makes governing the United States that much harder, and depending on what side of the political spectrum you sit on, confirms that the Democrats are simply persecuting Trump or that the Republicans have no moral compass by supporting a candidate with no regard for democratic processes.

As such, it is also a tragedy for both political parties.

For the Republican Party, it once again confirms that it has been captured by a reality television star whose ego outweighs any concerns for the health of the nation. The Republicans have had multiple opportunities to break from Trump, particularly following the January 6th storming of the US Capitol, but have chosen to support him with the hope, despite all evidence, that he will play nice.

For the Democrats, they have expended so much energy in impeaching the former president, a significant section of the American public is no longer paying attention. They are seen as the party who cried wolf and, rightly or wrongly, are painted as being captured by radical progressives. The Democrats are now tied to legal proceedings that are seen as weaponising the legal system in their favour.

It is also a tragedy for the American legal system which has now been thoroughly politicised – forced to decide to prosecute a presidential candidate because it is doing its job. If the Republicans had done theirs, then America would not have found itself in this mess.

The charges

It should be noted that many Trump critics hoped that the Manhattan District Attorney, Alvin Bragg, had waited for Trump to be indicted on more important potential charges. This was echoed by The Atlantic‘s David Graham who argued, ‘Falsifying records is a crime, and crime is bad.’

The problem, however, is twofold. Firstly, it is like chasing Al Capone for tax evasion because, as Graham puts it, ‘the Manhattan case seems like perhaps both the least significant and the legally weakest case.’

In other words, while we may not know the details of the charges yet, many legal experts doubt that this case will stick.

More so, this all is alleged to have occurred before Trump became president. In many ways, this is seen as digging dirt on a presidential candidate to stop him from running and sets a precedent in US politics.

What does this mean for Trump?

There is a chance that Trump will be found guilty – and this no doubt plays on the former president’s mind. The charges and the circus that has followed, have given Trump’s campaign a new energy and allows the former president to lean into his playbook: conflict, bluster, insults, conspiracy theories and legal obfuscation.

Trump has already started painting this as ‘a radical left-wing conspiracy’ and blaming billionaire financier, George Soros. He has framed the Manhattan District Attorney as a liberal prosecutor simply pursuing political retribution, referring to him as a ‘progressive activist’, a ‘rogue prosecutor’ and a ‘woke tyrant who has politicised the justice system.’

This is classic Trump as we saw this throughout the 2016 presidential campaign when he relished the conflict that most politicians would prefer to avoid, including criticising John McCain for being captured and therefore, not being a war hero, and even holding a press conference with some of the women that had accused Bill Clinton of sexual harassment after Hilary Clinton had accused Trump of misogyny.

As Bryan Lanza, a Republican strategist and Trump adviser noted, ‘…the playbook remains exactly the same. Attack the legal as political.’

Further, Trump has been able to portray himself as a victim of a leftist plot – a common theme of his presidency – and used this to garner his base. According to reports, Trump has raised upwards of US$7 million since his indictment and soared past Ron DeSantis in the polls.

A Yahoo News/YouGov poll conducted since the indictment has seen a change of fortunes for Trump’s poll numbers. In a survey conducted two weeks before the indictment, Trump (47 per cent) led DeSantis (39 per cent) by eight percentage points in a head-to-head matchup among registered voters who are Republicans or Republican-leaning independents.

A post-indictment poll, however, finds Trump ahead by 26 percentage points – 57 per cent to 31 per cent – in a one-on-one contest.

No one should be above the law. The tragedy is that through a focus on partisan politics and an inability to hold Trump to account, attempting to enforce the law will create an even deeper divide in American society.

In this environment, Trump may be the only winner.

Professor James Arvanitakis, is Director of the Forrest Research Foundation. He was formerly the Pro Vice Chancellor at Western Sydney University, and Executive Director of Fulbright Australia. He is a regular on ABC News 24 and The Drum and has over 100 publications. He is a Fulbright alumnus, having spent 12 months at the University of Wyoming as the Milward L Simpson Fellow.