For the first time in US history, a former president will face criminal indictment. The grand jury convened by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg on Thursday voted to indict Donald Trump regarding hush money payoffs to an alleged former paramour.
Mr Trump has shattered so many norms in his political career – including being the only president to have been impeached twice and to have refused to recognise his electoral defeat and instead attempt to overturn the constitutional system to remain in power – the political and historic significance of this latest breakthrough may be lost in the shuffle. But that would be a significant mistake.
2023 had been acquiring a powerful odour of 2016 regarding Mr Trump's latest bid for party leadership and a third consecutive Republican presidential nomination. But the indictment adds a very different dimension.
The former president reportedly welcomes the indictment and has even contemplated the televisual optics of surrendering to the traditional Manhattan "perp walk," in which the indicted individual is paraded, handcuffed, before the media and marched into the courthouse. Cooler heads in his own camp, and certainly in Mr Bragg's office, will undoubtedly prevail, and he is likely to have an uneventful surrender and quick processing next week.
Nonetheless, Mr Trump is undoubtedly convinced that this indictment, which he appeared to welcome in numerous statements in recent days, will strengthen him politically. And this highlights the noteworthy elements of 2023 that are arguably similar to and distinct from 2016.
Once again Mr Trump appears to be the unstoppable candidate despite obvious trepidation from party leadership. He has been consistently gaining ground against his only plausible opponent thus far, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
Mr DeSantis, who has not even announced his candidacy, has demonstrated the impossible dilemma facing Republican leaders who wish to defeat Mr Trump but feel unable to directly criticise him by name because of his deep popularity with the party faithful. So, while the former president has been criticising and mocking Mr DeSantis, the Florida governor has barely uttered Mr Trump's name. Therefore, Mr Trump's lead has been consistently extending.
Overt opposition to his candidacy is coming from two very weak sources. Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie is unabashed in bashing Mr Trump, but he is not exactly a potent political threat. Similarly, some programmes and hosts on Fox News Channel have proven distinctly hostile to Mr Trump, but others remain loyal. And the channel as a whole has proven more than willing to ultimately give its audience what it wants, including if that means consciously, deliberately and systematically lying to them. Again, Mr Trump has little to fear.
The Trump campaigns in 2023 and 2016 both pulled the party to the right, or at least exposed and empowered an ultra-right-wing faction that had been leaderless and largely powerless since the end of the Second World War. But in 2023 clearly Mr Trump is pulling his party in a much more dangerous direction, one overtly hostile to the American political system and democracy.
He has openly called for the "termination" of the Constitution to allow him to remain in power, has fully embraced the January 6 prisoners awaiting trial for sedition and other offences during the assault on Congress, and has vowed "retribution" against all those he feels wronged him or his followers.
Trump 2023 is considerably more radical than Trump 2016 or 2020. And he appears to be pulling the Republican Party with him, particularly in the House of Representatives. And he not only faces no significant opposition, he appears to be pulling away with the nomination at this extremely early stage with no plausible obstacle in his way.
It is into this morass that the criminal indictment comes. He has threatened "death and destruction" if he is charged with a crime, but that is empty hyperbole. Given the aftermath of January 6, only lone wolf terrorists, not furious mobs, are imaginable albeit highly unlikely.
Instead, what he hopes to do is use this indictment and other possible charges – for election tampering in Georgia and at the federal level for prolonging documents and attempting a coup – to amplify his victimhood and intensify his supporter’s hatred of the government and all major US national institutions.
There is every danger this will indeed work within the Republican Party base. But it will surely further alienate him from the suburban and swing voters who decide national elections. It is yet more good news for President Joe Biden's re-election chances.
For far-right wing Republicans who already despise government, these probably multiple indictments and forthcoming trials will solidify rancid narratives about a non-existent corrupt "deep state" and various "rigged" systems. And it will probably spread and deepen those paranoid delusions within the party itself, including both the base and elected officials.
But as the 2000 general election and, even more, the 2022 midterms demonstrated, running on these narratives can win a lot of votes but not a lot of elections.
As for the charges themselves, the hush money payment plot doesn't seem as strong as the Georgia election interference or January 6 coup plot cases. But Mr Trump's former lawyer Michael Cohen who actually made the payments at his behest pled guilty to virtually the same charges and was sentenced to three years in prison. So, the case is clearly both precedented and plausible.
If Mr Trump and his supporters imagine that it will strengthen his image with the general American public to be put on trial for having authorised and subsidised hush money payments to an "adult film actress" for a sexual liaison, they are delusional.
It doesn't help that Mr Trump denied any affair with Stormy Daniels on the grounds that she "wasn't his type". Or that he claimed he didn't know anything about the $130,000 payment. Or that he then said that perhaps he did know about it, but never ordered Mr Cohen to make the payment, despite having secretly and allegedly unlawfully reimbursed him.
Mr Trump likely faces at least one or two more indictments in the coming months. The Republican base may rally around him, but most Americans are unlikely to be impressed with the facts of the hush money case, whatever the trial’s outcome. And Mr Trump will be remembered, on top of everything else, as the first former US president to face a major criminal indictment.