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Republican presidential candidate, former U.S. president Donald Trump, walks to reporters to make a statement at the end of the day of his trial at the Manhattan criminal court, May 2, in New York.Doug Mills/The Associated Press

If the American empire should fall, history will record (if there are still historians to record anything) that it was brought down by a single man. And not by some latter-day Simón Bolívar, but by a corpulent, sweating, stone-ignorant grifter from Queens.

It will have fallen, in that event, not to some rival power or superior ideology, but to its own interior rot. All it took, those future historians will marvel, was one push for the whole edifice to collapse. One push, by a failed businessman and serial groper with a bad comb-over and a peculiar habit of sniffing after every few words.

That is the import of the extraordinary spectacle unfolding south of the border. The sense that something existential is at stake is palpable. Either the United States and all that it stands for – its institutions, its system of government, its status as the world’s leading democracy – will prevail, or Donald Trump will. Donald Trump.

Is it not remarkable? The whole might and majesty of the United States, the greatest power the world has ever known, is ranged against him. He is on trial in four different courts on a total of 88 charges, ranging from business fraud to unlawful retention of classified documents to attempting to overthrow the last election. He has already been found liable, in two civil cases, of tax fraud and sexual abuse.

The presidency, and with it all the offices of the executive, is in the hands of another party. So is the Senate. The country’s intellectual and political classes are almost uniformly hostile. Legions of former aides, cabinet members and senior officials in his previous administration have disavowed him. His finances are so strained he is reduced to hawking Bibles to raise funds. And yet there is at least an even-money chance that he will be returned to power in November.

Much commentary has focused on the threat to American democracy posed by a second Trump presidency. And rightly so. Quite apart from the policies, if that is the right word, he would pursue – abandoning Ukraine, dismantling NATO, deporting 11 million immigrants, all the hits – Mr. Trump has left no doubt as to what his primary objectives would be.

On the one hand, he would give orders to wind down any remaining criminal proceedings against him, having earlier taken the precaution of replacing officials committed to the independence of the judicial system with his personal loyalists.

On the other hand, he would deploy all of the powers of his office to getting even with his adversaries, by means ranging from regulatory edicts to criminal prosecution to the cruder sorts of thuggery. Or what did you think that whole discussion of presidential immunity was about?

Certainly there can be no question of what action he will take on one point in particular: He will not allow himself to be removed from office, and will arrange matters to ensure this becomes a practical if not legal impossibility. In time the only issue will be who among his retinue of followers or immediate family will succeed him.

But as much harm as a second Trump presidency could do – and make no mistake, it would be immensely more harmful than the first – what is truly remarkable is how much damage he has been able to do already, as a private citizen.

To be sure, he has had help. Mr. Trump would not be the malignant force he is without the backing of a significant section of the Republican Party, whether among the fanatics in the party base or the opportunists in the party establishment.

That so many Republicans could be so alienated from their country and its institutions as to be willing to believe, not just that Mr. Trump is innocent of any crime, but that the whole judicial system is rigged against him – having earlier been persuaded that Mr. Trump did not lose the 2020 election but that it, too, was rigged – is an important precursor of the Trump phenomenon.

Worse, a good many of those same Republicans appear to believe that it does not matter whether Mr. Trump is guilty or not, or whether he was democratically elected or not: that their interests, indeed (as they see it) their very survival, are so threatened by Democratic rule that they, and he, are justified in any measures necessary to seize and hold power, up to and including violence and dictatorship.

And in these beliefs they have been encouraged, overtly, by Fox News and other elements of the Republican media ecosystem, and covertly, by Russian and Chinese disinformation tactics.

So, yes, Mr. Trump had help. He could not have done it alone. But what is equally true is that none of this would have been possible without the singular figure of Mr. Trump. You could have all of these ingredients – a distracted, disaffected base; ruthless, amoral party leaders; foreign interference – but unless you also had someone capable of harnessing and channeling these you would still not have anything like the potent vehicle for authoritarianism today’s Republican Party has become.

Even then it would be unlikely to succeed, in the face of the formidable institutional obstacles such a movement would ordinarily be likely to encounter. Americans have long taken pride in the resilience of their democracy: in the world’s oldest continuously extant Constitution; in the careful safeguards against tyranny – among them, the separation of powers and the Bill of Rights – it codified; and in the deep commitment to the rule of law it embodied.

But none of these, we can now see, could have anticipated a monster on the scale of Mr. Trump: one not only wholly devoid of principle, but – driven, one suspects, by some profound psychological disturbance – determined to negate it at every turn; unguided, not only by conscience, but a sense of shame, or even rational self-interest.

Fundamentally, all of our institutions of government depend, at some point, on the willingness of the participants to adhere to certain norms and conventions. If they will not do so out of genuine belief in their value, we suppose they will do so out of a belief that things will go poorly for them if they do not: because they will face legal consequences, or because they will lose political support, or even because people whose approval they crave will think less well of them as a result.

At the very least, we suppose that they will do so because, at some point, they have no alternative. There will come a moment, that is, when they will have to, metaphorically, put their hands up and concede, “You got me.”

But what do you do with someone who does not, will not ever, acknowledge any restraints of any kind – legal, moral or other? Who believes in nothing, obeys no laws and has no sense of shame? And who, even when caught, simply takes this as an opportunity to escalate further – to the point of taking the whole system of law down with him?

I’ve written before of how completely this utter shamelessness has disarmed the media: democracy’s first line of defence. It isn’t just that he has lowered expectations to his level, to the point that nothing he does, no matter how vile, arouses shock or even surprise any more. Or that he has succeeded in portraying any unfavourable coverage not as evidence of his many crimes and manifest unfitness for office, but of media bias.

It is that he has upended the traditional model of political journalism, based as it is on the idea that there are always two (or more) legitimate contenders for power – each flawed in their own way, but essentially alike as participants in the democratic process; and that, while reasonable people can differ over which is to be preferred, each is entitled to be covered as if they were valid alternatives.

But when one of the participants has explicitly rejected the whole process – has made clear he will not accept any result but victory, will claim victory even in defeat, and will back that claim by force or fraud as required – the traditional approach will not do. The more appropriate model in that event is a natural disaster or similar threat to the community. When a flood strikes, we do not give equal time to the flood.

The media having been effectively taken out of play, it was relatively easy for Mr. Trump to undermine America’s political system. The Jan. 6 plot, with its complex apparatus of fake electors and false claims of election fraud, was, in this regard, only the final and most elaborate stage, and the violent assault on the Capitol only its most visible expression.

Certainly it would have been a disaster had the plot succeeded. But very nearly as much damage was done merely by implanting the suggestion in the minds of millions of Americans, not just that the last election was rigged, but that elections are generally. November’s vote will take place very much in the shadow of this outrageous lie, with consequences we can only guess at.

Meantime, Mr. Trump is hard at work doing the same to the American legal system. At this point it is unclear whether any of the four cases will be decided before the election; only one, the New York business fraud case, has even begun hearing evidence. In every one, the Trump modus operandi has been the same: stall, question the judge’s integrity, and publicly threaten witnesses and jurors, all with near impunity.

Again, he has had help. In the Mar-a-Lago classified documents case, a Trump-appointed judge appears to be doing her best to run out the clock. The Georgia electoral interference case has somehow become entangled in the prosecutor’s love life.

And in the biggest case of them all, surrounding the Jan. 6 plot, Mr. Trump may have already won a kind of victory, the Supreme Court having given his audacious, not to say obscene claim of absolute immunity against all crimes he might have committed, or might commit in future, as president – from murder to election fraud to military coups – not the back of the hand it deserved, but a respectful, and time-consuming, hearing.

It is not too much to say that it is the American legal system that is on trial, as much as Mr. Trump. If it is unable to bring him to justice – if he can beat these raps as easily as he has beaten all the others in his long career, or even if he is allowed to rag the puck until election day – it will be a defeat, not just for federal and state prosecutors, but for the rule of law itself.

And if, as a result, he were to eke out a win in November – or to cast doubt on the result, as a prelude to chaos and insurrection – then God help us all.

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