A historian's view on the first indictment of a former POTUS
James Long on a prosecution that's unprecedented here, but common abroad.
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By Thor Benson
Former President Donald Trump’s indictment may be an unprecedented event in this country, but the prosecution of former leaders is far less unusual in other parts of the world. To cite just a few prominent examples, it’s happened in democracies like France, Israel, and South Korea.
Does prosecuting a former head of state destabilize a democracy? Not necessarily, says James Long, a professor of political science at the University of Washington. And even in younger democracies like South Korea, which has put four former presidents on trial, the ultimate impact can be a positive one, as the rule of law is affirmed.
I spoke with Long recently about why America has been so resistant — until now anyway — to pursue charges against a former president, and how the hush money payments at the core of the Manhattan indictment are the “original sin” from which all other Trump investigations flow.
When you look at other countries and they’re charging former leaders for legitimate crimes, would you say that strengthens democracy? Have there perhaps been negative consequences to our unwillingness to do that?
My research, along with my colleague Victor Menaldo, shows it depends on the age of the democracy. If it’s an old democracy that has an established rule of law, it doesn’t need to be destabilizing at all. In France, they investigated and found guilty former president Nicolas Sarkozy for illegal campaign financing, and French democracy was not hurt by that. The threats to French democracy are not due to that prosecution.
Italy is a young democracy in a lot of ways, but the prosecution of Silvio Berlusconi happened, and Italy did not return to civil war or fascism or anything like that. In younger democracies, prosecutions can be destabilizing, particularly if it’s folks who ran the country during a dictatorship or were part of a previous nondemocratic regime or were in the military and committed human rights violations, because they can saber rattle and threaten a lot of things.
You see this a lot in Latin America in the 20th century. On the one hand, you don’t want to allow impunity, and you want to hold people to account. On the other hand, the fact of the matter is these people are very powerful and can use the threat of prosecution to block democratization or to try to rig the system in their favor. New democracies have to weigh that balance between instability and imposing the rule of law.
South Korea has had five former presidents investigated. Four of them went to trial and one died by suicide while he was being investigated. South Korea is a much younger democracy, but the evidence suggests that because their more recent presidents have been much cleaner, those prosecutions may have helped solidify the rule of law.
Would you say that the US is unique among democracies in its hesitance to indict political leaders?
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