The barrage of indictments against Donald Trump is election interference. That much, even the former president’s most fervent opponents have to admit. Given the nation’s catastrophic polarization, prudence would dictate scheduling the start of his federal trial for a day other than March 4, which falls just before Super Tuesday. But this blatant politicization is probably the point: Trump is to be defeated in a campaign of judicial shock and awe. To be any subtler would dilute the harsh lesson the powers that be intend to impart to half of the American electorate.

But there is no sign that this lesson will be heeded. The Trump mugshot, far from humiliating the man, turned—predictably—into a rallying cry. And while Trump’s ability to campaign will be hampered by the concerted lawfare against him, the actual effect will likely be to make campaigning unnecessary in the first place. When only one candidate is being dragged through the mud by a political party that is busily dismantling what remains of American political norms, supporting that candidate becomes a far more fundamental matter than policy preferences.

A further consequence is that we have already passed the point of no return as far as the legitimacy of the result is concerned. Even beyond inevitable concerns about vote-rigging, in the instance of a Trump loss, his supporters will—for good reason—regard the unrelenting legal onslaught against their candidate as having tainted the election before it occurred. For the same reason, however, a victory by a candidate viewed as a criminal will be regarded as ipso facto illegitimate by the other side—as was already the case in 2016, and would have been had Trump won in 2020.

Democracy only continues to function as long as an electoral system ensures basic compliance and buy-in, which means accepting the legitimacy of results. When both sides accept the same basic rules and norms, it is possible for political questions—which encompass the most fundamental questions about how to live and what matters—to be resolved with ballots instead of bullets. In America, that basic compact has now been broken, perhaps irreparably. The mugshot, the trial date, the unrelenting indictments: These are just the beginning of this crisis. As election season gains momentum, and America moves into 2024, we are likely to witness an even more vicious cycle of escalation, denunciation, and polarization.

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