By Gwynne Dyer
Sooner or later ex-president Donald Trump is bound to be indicted for some crime. It doesn’t matter which – it could be a fraud or corruption charge, or a sexual offence, or incitement to violence, or even just tax evasion. (That’s what finally got Al Capone.) And it doesn’t matter whether he’s convicted, either; the real drama will come before that.
We have all been exposed to his rampaging id, and by now his actions are fairly predictable. In particular, we know that his standard response to any legal problem is to rage that it is yet another ‘witch-hunt’, and hire whichever lawyers will still work for him to get the charges dismissed or at least indefinitely delayed.
Under no circumstances will Trump tamely show up in court to fight his case, agreeing to testify under oath. He has given too many hostages to fortune, and once that process gets underway his ultimate destination is probably huge fines and/or prison. So he must find another way to respond.
We have a very recent example of what a ruthless, trapped ex-president will do to avoid that fate. Jacob Zuma was president of South Africa for nine years, and his behaviour in power gave the world a new phrase: ‘state capture’. His friends and business partners prospered mightily, and their activities cost South Africa an estimated $83 billion.
Zuma has also faced rape charges, and is currently dealing with sixteen criminal charges of fraud, racketeering and money laundering. Or rather not dealing with them: he has repeatedly refused to appear in court and answer the charges. Eventually, the Constitutional Court sentenced him to fifteen months in jail for contempt of court.
Zuma duly handed himself in a week ago and is now in jail, but he knew what would happen next and was counting on it to free him of all his legal troubles. And it did happen: the parts of South Africa where there are large populations of Zulus, Zuma’s own tribe, exploded into violence.
In KwaZulu-Natal, the Zulu homeland, and in South Africa’s biggest urban area, the Johannesburg region, there were violent mass protests demanding his release (almost exclusively Zulu), which morphed into mass looting (any thug can join). Around 200 supermarkets and many other businesses have been pillaged and burned, and 75 people are dead. 1,700 have been arrested.
Zuma’s game was clearly to frighten the South African government into dropping all the charges, and it might have worked. In a country of minorities, Zulus are the biggest minority (22%), and feel historically entitled because of their past military dominance. A lot of them did come out on the streets for him.
But President Cyril Ramaphosa (who was born into the smallest and most innocuous tribe, the Venda) put the army on the streets and faced him down. The riots have ended except in KwaZulu-Natal, and are now dwindling in size and number even there. Zuma’s future does not look bright.
Now, what has all this to do with Donald Trump? Quite a lot, because he has made himself the figurehead and alleged champion of the interests of the biggest American minority, the non-metropolitan whites of the United States.
They make up about 30% of the US population, they are angry and frightened about their gradual descent into being just one interest group among many, and a significant proportion of them are prepared to follow Trump anywhere. They willingly ignore all his sexual and financial peccadilloes and they have even swallowed the Big Lie: that he really won the 2020 election.
The mills of American justice grind even more slowly than those of the South African courts, but the time is coming when Trump will be charged with a serious offence in one of the several domains where he is highly vulnerable. Will he tamely submit to the judgements of the court? Of course not.
He will do a Zuma, stringing it out as long as possible and then finally resorting to an attempt to overawe the American state and constitution by violence in the streets. He has done that once already, and he will certainly do it again if his freedom or even just his fortune is at stake.
Excitable pundits talk about a second American civil war, and it’s true that Trump could persuade hundreds or even thousands of Americans to kill and die for him. But Trump’s first tentative use of this strategy failed on 6 January, and Zuma’s resort to similar tactics is currently failing before our eyes.
A last-ditch Trump attempt to terrorise the courts into submission is also almost bound to fail – but that doesn’t mean he will not try it.
Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.