Donald Trump, Eugene Debs, and AMLO

I’m not sure whether Donald Trump has ever heard of Eugene Debs, the austerely incorruptible early leader of America’s Socialist Party. But I think there’s a growing likelihood that their two names will soon be paired in many news stories as we move towards the 2024 election.

Although almost forgotten today, Debs was a very prominent political figure a century ago, and he usually received brief mention in my introductory history textbooks, which occasionally noted the five times he had run for the Presidency on the Socialist Party ticket. His high-water mark came in the 1912 election when he pulled a remarkable 6% of the national vote, possibly even influencing the outcome of the bitter three-way race between incumbent President Howard Taft, former President Theodore Roosevelt, and New Jersey Gov. Woodrow Wilson, which was won by the latter. Historian James Chace, former managing editor of Foreign Affairs, told that story in an interesting 2004 book.

The horrific First World War broke out the year after Wilson was inaugurated, and Debs, a strong anti-militarist, sat out the 1916 race as Wilson won a very narrow reelection victory partly on the strength of the campaign slogan “He kept us out of war.” But America’s industrial giants had sold enormous quantities of munitions to the Allies, much of it on credit, and without an Allied victory, those loans could never be repaid. So once the votes were counted and after a failed attempt to negotiate peace, Wilson soon reversed himself and took America into the stalemated European conflict.

Armies of many millions had already spent several years clashing on the Western Front, and only an enormous American force could tip the balance, so Wilson enacted a military draft, the first and only such measure in our national history except for the Civil War fought more than two generations earlier. Forcing millions of Americans to fight and die thousands of miles from home in a foreign war proved extremely unpopular in many parts of the country, and harsh sedition laws were soon passed, threatening long prison sentences for anyone who challenged those controversial government policies.

At a 1918 political rally, Debs made some disparaging remarks about his government’s actions and the military draft, and he was quickly prosecuted and convicted despite his free speech defense, receiving a ten-year sentence in federal prison. That exemplary punishment hardly deterred him or his committed supporters, so the Socialist Party nominated him as its candidate in the 1920 Presidential race. Despite campaigning from his prison cell, he still won nearly a million votes—3.4% of the total. That achievement probably became the most memorable incident of his long career, and was almost always worth a sentence in history textbooks written many decades later.

That bizarre story of a candidate running for the Presidency while serving time in federal prison has surely brought a smile to the faces of generations of high school and college students, an amusing historical tidbit that leavened the otherwise dull profusion of obscure names and dates from a century ago. But today the sheer political insanity of America’s Democratic Party establishment has now brought our unfortunate country to a far stranger situation. Depending upon the speed of the judicial process, we face the very real prospect of former President Donald J. Trump running—and winning—the Presidency while sitting on his cot in state or federal prison.

Media is the oxygen of political campaigns, and Trump’s totally unexpected primary and general election victories in 2016 were driven by the massive attention he received for his sometimes outrageous public statements, coverage greatly amplified by the unprecedented number of Twitter followers he had quickly amassed on social media. His bitter political enemies recognized the enormous, unfiltered power of that latter communication tool, and after he reached the White House, they exerted enormous pressure upon Twitter to begin censoring him. The notion of an American tech company restricting the political speech of a sitting American President seemed like something out of a Monty Python sketch, but it actually happened. Meanwhile, many of his leading activist supporters and pundit allies were completely purged from that platform, blows that greatly hindered his reelection campaign. Then after his November defeat and Joseph Biden’s inauguration, Trump himself suffered the same fate, with his Twitter account permanently suspended.

With Trump banned from Twitter in early 2021, his political standing soon ebbed away as more and more of his low-information political base gradually forgot about him. This led many observers to conclude that his time had passed and some rival would likely capture the Republican nomination in the 2024 primaries.

However, that decline was quickly reversed when Trump’s bitterly self-destructive Democratic Party enemies launched a series of prosecutions against him on a variety of different charges, ranging from mishandling secret documents to paying hush money to a former girlfriend to election fraud, all rather dubious charges. With such exciting new topics, the endless Trump Political Reality show had suddenly returned as popular entertainment, regaining the very high ratings it had previously enjoyed. Trump once again became the great hero of his populist Republican supporters, with recent polls showing he was drawing far more support in the 2024 primaries than all his Republican rivals combined.

Indeed, some cynical observers even suggested that this outcome might have been intentional. Perhaps the Democrats regarded Trump as the weakest Republican candidate they might face in 2024, and sought to ensure his renomination. Such a deeply Machiavellian strategy might be possible, but all of these various prosecutions and trials will surely keep Trump at the top of the news cycle from now until November 2024, whether Election Day finds him still on trial or already serving time behind bars. It’s easy to imagine that the same tidal wave of backlash sentiment now propelling Trump to a landslide victory in the forthcoming primaries might also carry over into November, returning him to the Presidency, whether from the courtroom or the jail house.

We should consider that even a couple of months ago when Trump’s legal problems were only just beginning, he already began attracting strongly sympathetic remarks from unexpected ideological quarters.

Columnist Kevin Barrett is a Muslim convert friendly towards Iran, and in May he published a short item that opened by characterizing Trump as “an odious figure…A narcissistic semi-literate scoundrel.” But his piece was entitled “Why I’m ALMOST Ready to Vote for Trump,” and he explained that the totally unhinged campaign of vilification by our entire political and media establishment against the obnoxious former President had largely shifted him in that direction. He also cited the analysis of a popular progressive podcaster:

Jimmy Dore makes a good case that Trump’s civil trial for sexual assault and defamation was “A Pure Democratic Hit Job.” Dore points out that New York’s bizarre one-year repeal of the statute of limitations was specifically designed to grease the skids for Carroll-v-Trump. Since when did governments start temporarily repealing statutes of limitations so they can go after political figures they don’t like? The move seems especially egregious because it involved an almost three-decade-old case in which the alleged victim can’t even remember which year the alleged assault happened, and has no evidence whatsoever other than her word against his. If you’re going to do something as extreme as suspending the statute of limitations so you can prosecute a specific case, shouldn’t you at least have some evidence?

Around the same time, other influential progressive journalists such as Max Blumenthal and Aaron Mate similarly ridiculed Trump’s indictment on hush-money charges by an NYC prosecutor.

As of a week ago, Trump had already been facing 71 separate state and federal felony indictments. Then he was struck by the weightiest federal charge of all, accusing him of organizing a conspiracy to overturn the 2020 election results. These days American society is deeply polarized and most of the charges against Trump will be tried in venues such as DC, Manhattan, and Atlanta where the jury-pools are sure to be heavily larded with Trump-haters. Add to that the uniformly hostile media coverage, and Trump’s prospects of acquittal seem as dim as those faced by Debs in the wartime atmosphere of 1918. With so many dozens of serious charges against him, our 45th President seems likely to end up behind bars.

These latest indictments finally moved longtime progressive columnist and cartoonist Ted Rall into that same camp of outright Trump sympathizers. On Friday he published a column entitled “Hail to the Jailbird President,” arguing that Trump might very well regain the Presidency on the strength of the unrelenting judicial and media campaign against him. According to Rall, the legal and political establishment fails to understand “that we, the people, hate their guts much more than we look down on…someone like Trump.”

Although Trump’s legion of enemies in the political and media firmament would probably regard Rall’s reaction as incomprehensible, the point he is making is a very simple one. In recent years, enormous numbers of Americans, possibly even a considerable majority, have come to regard our country’s ruling elite establishment as their deepest, sworn enemy. The massive vilification of Trump in such quarters indicates that those elites fear Trump as their most dangerous foe, so many voters may eventually conclude that the enemy of their enemy is at least worth a casual vote on the November ballot.

Although Trump’s previous legal troubles had received a great deal of media attention, the coverage of the latest charges—that he had illegally conspired to subvert American democracy by challenging the results of the 2020 election and remaining in office—was vastly greater.

Only a fraction of New York Times subscribers still receive the national print edition, but it usefully provides a congealed record of those issues most important to the editors, and on both Thursday and Friday the upper section of each front page—nearly two-thirds of the available space—was filled with multiple stories describing Trump’s federal indictment on election conspiracy charges.

I only very lightly skimmed the arguments and they’re mostly a jumble in my mind, but apparently the blowhard Trump felt he’d actually won the 2020 election and spoke with his leading supporters about challenging the official results, which they all believed were heavily tainted with fraud. But although countless American candidates throughout our history have bitterly complained about stolen elections and sometimes contested the outcomes, our rabidly partisan Democratic prosecutors have now decided to treat that behavior as a crime, apparently hoping to destroy their Trumpian nemesis using the power of the courts.

This judicial innovation may be unique in the developed world and seems extremely rare even outside it. Trump’s crude insults about “Mexican rapists” had hardly endeared him to the citizens of our Southern neighbor, but by all accounts Mexico’s leftist President Andrés Manuel López Obrador—AMLO—seemed quite supportive and sympathetic towards Trump during his reelection campaign, and was also one of the last major world leaders to accept Biden’s victory and acknowledge that Trump had lost.

Probably one of the factors behind this surprising political twist was that the populist AMLO had himself been bitterly opposed by the united political establishment of his own country when he’d run for the presidency in 2006 and 2012, and twice claimed that he had been cheated of victory by government fraud. His extremely narrow loss in 2006 had been particularly suspicious, and after his apparent election-night victory had suddenly been transmuted into defeat, he and his outraged supporters began a massive protest campaign that disrupted life in the capital city, with his sympathizers even publicly swearing him in as “the Legitimate President of Mexico.”

Yet while many Americans—Trumpists most of all—regularly disparage and insult Mexico as a Third World “shithole country,” the Mexican political elites tolerated AMLO’s protests with good grace. Rather than being prosecuted and imprisoned, AMLO eventually gave up on his unofficial presidency and after creating a new party as his vehicle, ran for president a third time in 2018, winning in a huge landslide despite any election fraud. So while Trump faces time in prison for complaining about a stolen election, his Mexican counterpart who had earlier done much the same thing is completing his very successful six-year term, ranked as one of the world’s most popular leaders and having a good chance that his hand-picked candidate will succeed him.

Fortunately for AMLO, his protests of a stolen election had occurred in 2006, long before Trump entered the scene, so any attempt by his own government to prosecute and imprison him would have surely been denounced and ridiculed by the American establishment as an outrageous violation of basic democratic principles. But these days, the globally-dominant and Trump-hating American media plays a very different tune, so the precedent of prosecuting a losing candidate for protesting alleged election fraud may soon spread worldwide.

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