US Supreme Court hearings this week could determine Trump's fate

The biggest story of the year will be Trump vs Biden, but we cannot understand that without thinking about the events of January 6, 2021

A supporter of Donald Trump wears a gas mask and holds a bust of him after he and hundreds of others stormed stormed the Capitol building on January 6, 2021 in Washington AFP
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January is the month when millions of us plan the year ahead. When will we take holidays? Where will we go? What do we need to do with our families or at work? The poet Robert Burns, whose birthday many Scots, including me, will be celebrating this month, reminded us that “the best laid plans” of most of us often go badly wrong through unforeseen events.

British Prime minister Rishi Sunak is planning too. He says he plans the British general election for the second half of 2024. Perhaps. But one of Mr Sunak’s wise predecessors, Harold MacMillan, echoed Robert Burns’s scepticism about planning. When Macmillan was asked by a young colleague about the greatest challenge facing a prime minister he replied: “Events, dear boy, events.”

Events can throw all our plans off course. In January 2020, for example, who among us had planned for coronavirus? It hit the following month. In January 2022, few outside the intelligence agencies of Nato and Ukraine, appeared concerned about sabre-rattling from Moscow. A month later came the invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces. And in January 2021, who could have predicted the pro-Trump riot in Washington DC?

Nevertheless now, in January 2024, here’s one prediction that I think can be advanced with some confidence. The event that could throw many plans off course in 2024 and that will dominate our thoughts and news coverage is the US presidential election of November 2024. It’s already dominated not by policies but personalities.

There will be complex arguments about whether Mr Trump should even be on the ballot in some state

Former US president Donald Trump’s campaign suggests that the future of the US presidency, and perhaps of American democracy, may be defined by those astonishing events from three years ago.

On January 6, 2021, that violent mob of Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol. They created disorder and mayhem. There were 1200 arrests. About 900 people pleaded guilty or were convicted of criminal offences, yet Mr Trump called the mayhem “a beautiful day.”

The events, beautiful or ugly depending on your view, are being discussed in the US Supreme Court this week raising questions about whether Mr Trump could be disqualified as a presidential candidate. There have been numerous unresolved court cases elsewhere too. But the key question is Donald Trump’s responsibility (or irresponsibility) for the Capitol Hill insurrection.

The riot took place at the heart of American democracy. You can walk from the US Supreme Court, where Mr Trump’s political future may be determined, to the US Capitol in a few minutes. You can then walk from the Capitol to the White House in a pleasant stroll of maybe 20 minutes. The future of much that will happen in the world for the next few years, therefore, will be decided in the very narrow ground of central Washington.

There will be complex arguments about whether Mr Trump should even be on the ballot in some states; whether he personally fomented insurrection and rebellion three years ago and whether any of this disqualifies him from the presidency. Was Mr Trump complicit in an attempt to overturn American democracy? If so, how can he be president again, especially since he denies the validity of the 2020 vote?

Mr Trump tells his supporters that this is a witch-hunt against him. He claims he tells Americans “the truth” and even calls his social media site “Truth Social”. Others see him a serial liar. So what can we now expect is being planned for the campaign ahead?

A clue comes from a conversation I once had with a successful California lawyer. I asked him why he had won so many difficult cases in the courtroom. “When the facts are against you,” he told me, “you argue the law. When the law is against you, you argue the facts. And when everything is against you, heck – you just argue.”

And “just arguing” is the key to understanding the year ahead in the US. Rather than the usual political discussions and divisions about national security, America’s role in the world, the economy, immigration and other normal political issues, US President Joe Biden will argue that Mr Trump is a threat to American democracy. Mr Biden has already begun to portray the Trump campaign in this way.

To an extent Mr Trump has helped Mr Biden’s argument. Asked if in his second term he would be a dictator Mr Trump suggested that he would, but only “for one day.” Then Mr Trump turned the same arguments against Mr Biden and the Democrats.

“They’re willing to violate the US Constitution at levels never seen before in order to win,” Mr Trump told an audience in New Hampshire in December. “Joe Biden is a threat to democracy. He is a threat.” The words “Biden Attacks Democracy” have been projected on screens at Trump rallies. And perhaps the word “projected” is useful here. Psychologists use the word “projection” to describe accusing someone else of your own failings.

And so this January we can plan for what undoubtedly will be the most bizarre and perhaps the most unpleasant presidential election campaign in American history projected – perhaps not in a good way – around the world.

Published: January 10, 2024, 4:00 AM