Political Metamorphosis of Donald Trump into American Navalny

While media outlets were still arguing about the nature and ramifications of Vladimir Putin’s International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrant, an even more groundbreaking sensation arrived from New York: Donald Trump is facing multiple charges after Manhattan grand jury voted to indict him. Trump might be the first U.S. president in history to face a criminal sentence after the end of his tenure. The indictment may decrease Trump’s chances of being nominated as a Republican candidate for the 2024 presidential election or even prevent him from participating in the elections altogether. Curiously enough, a similar strategy has been previously utilized by the Russian ruling elite against the opposition politician Alexei Navalny in order to bar him from running for the presidency in 2018. Using the judiciary against popular politicians is usually associated with authoritarian regimes. Coupled with multiple controversies from Trump’s first term, the indictment may further erode public trust in the American electoral system.

Preventive Measures in Legal Interpretation

In 2017, Alexei Navalny, the most prominent politician from the Russian “non-system opposition,” was denied official registration as a presidential candidate in the 2018 campaign. He spent several months rallying his supporters in Russia only to meet dismissal by the Russian Central Election Commission and later in the courts. The official reason for dismissal was his previous suspended sentence from 2014 for embezzlement while being an advisor for the former governor of Kirov oblast. In 2013, the Russian Constitutional Court confirmed that citizens with a criminal record for serious crimes could not become candidates for ten years after expungement. In the public eye, the nature of such strict measures was dubious, as they might be targeting Alexei Navalny’s presidential ambitions. In 2017, these doubts were confirmed – the authorities allowed Navalny to rally but denied his participation in 2018. Kremlin allowed his further activities until his controversial poisoning. He was sentenced to 3.5 years in prison, his unregistered party, “Russia of Future”, was soon banned, and his chief supporters fled the country or were prosecuted. In all cases, the authorities used the law to justify each step of Navalny’s prosecution, pushing him further and further from even the slightest possibility of running for presidency (or any other government office). In 2021, the Russian parliament passed a law preventing citizens sentenced for petty offences from running in the parliamentary elections. This measure eliminated even a theoretical opportunity of running for deputy positions by anyone not sanctioned by the authorities.

Preventive Measures in Judiciary

The situation around Donald Trump has been boiling since his Republican nomination in 2016. It all started as a joke for the American public. Then, Trump took the lead and faced Hillary Clinton, famously defeating her and taking office. It successfully reinforced the myth of American democracy and proved that any person without an initially developed solid support base could become a president. Simultaneously, it was shocking both for the part of American society, the U.S. and even some European leaders. However, right before the elections, scandal erupted around Stormy Daniels – she promised details about an affair with Trump. Media widely covered the issue, but the potential damage to the campaign in case of any additional disclosure could be fatal in the elections of such a narrow margin. It could also damage Trump’s image as a good family man and humiliate his wife, Melania. The scandal was presumably “hushed,” Trump was elected, though his misfortune as the U.S. President had just started. The media had been attacking him for several years, especially concerning the “Russian collusion” case. It ended with a fuss but caused enough damage: it paralyzed Trump’s activities as a head of the state. He even tried to sue his former political competitor from 2016, Hillary Clinton, suspecting her of conspiracy against him but quickly failed.

Now, Trump is active once more and showing signs of running for the 2024 elections. For his political opponents, it is time to strike and bog him down with endless proceedings, which will either force him to give up his presidential ambitions or at least deal a severe blow to his reputation. The latter seems less likely because it is hard to imagine anything more serious after all previous efforts and the January 6 Capitol Attack in 2020.

Electoral Blockbuster with an Unhappy Ending

Trump may use the indictment to boost his support around the country. It seems reasonable – he started preparing for any indictment outcome earlier in March. It is also said that the situation already helped him raise funds for the campaign. He is known for making flashy statements, but he would unlikely get any support from those who did not and do not like him now. There were four years to do so. One may argue that the Democratic Party played their cards well, successfully utilizing COVID-19 response and restrictions, mail voting and hushing Hunter Biden’s laptop scandal. Nevertheless, Trump’s attempt to run for the presidency again cannot be underestimated. It is a fact to deal with, and the indictment is one of the powerful instruments.

The biggest issue lies within the psychology of Trump’s opponents – whether they want to do anything to prevent him from retaking the White House. Previously, the smear campaign was a sufficient tool to eliminate political opponents. Its limitations became evident in recent years – despite substantial pressure from mainstream media and online platforms, Trump is still popular. Suppose his opponents want to go all-in, and the indictment is the primary preventive instrument. In that case, it will expand electoral procedures on the judiciary creating unpleasant connotations with Alexei Navalny’s case. Trump and Navalny are two politicians with distinct backgrounds, political capital and a prominent image in the media. It will be hard to create an information vacuum for Trump in the same fashion it was done for Navalny – the political systems and media functionality is different. However, any successful precedent of Trump’s elimination from the upcoming electoral cycles through judiciary measures will make the line between Russian and American political regimes thinner. The precedent may also open the “Pandora’s Box” – no president, politician or public figure will feel secure when participating in any elections on the federal level regardless of the amount of public support.

Roman Kusaiko
Roman Kusaiko
Ph.D. candidate at Lingnan University in Hong Kong