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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump delivers remarks in Greensboro, N.C., on June 10. Trump spoke during the North Carolina Republican party’s annual state convention two days after becoming the first former U.S. president indicted on federal charges.Win McNamee/Getty Images

Boxes in a bathroom. A legal case called United States of America v. Donald J. Trump. Assertions that “no one is above the law” versus claims that the law is being employed for low political reasons. Calls for violence and “revolution” in a 21st-century country stocked with guns and a history that reveres its 18th-century revolution.

This a trial for a former president that also is a trial of the democratic political system he once led and now seeks to command again.

With apologies to Felix Mendelssohn, whose Songs Without Words were published more than a century-and-a-half ago, this is a period of myriad Questions Without Answers.

We don’t know whether the 37 counts in the indictment against Donald Trump – much more dangerous than those in the New York case involving hush money to a porn star but also more dangerous for a democracy in upheaval – provide an actual peril to the former president.

We don’t know the political implications of the charges – more incendiary than the ones that led to a surge in Trump fundraising in April but also at a time when his donor base may have grown weary – for his presidential candidacy.

We don’t know how his rivals – who rallied to his side after the New York indictment but now actually are raising funds of their own and setting out plans for their own campaigns – will set themselves apart from the Republican front-runner even if they feel they must mouth tinny talking points that share his supporters’ outrage.

We don’t know – we can’t know – how the three following vital questions at the heart of this and the other legal challenges to Mr. Trump will be resolved in history’s verdict:

Is this a case of a corrupt public figure or of a corrupted political system? Is the chaos and disregard for precedent that Mr. Trump has sowed an aberration or is it the “new normal” in a country that – after a terrifying terrorist attack, a widening of the gap between the rich and everyone else, and a hardening of the 50-50 political stalemate – has grown weary of new normals? And has the war against established norms itself become normal?

Republican rifts over Donald Trump keep getting wider

This is known: There is a bad stench all around – not moral equivalence, to be sure, but the pervasive odour that comes with a former president harbouring documents that belong elsewhere. There is a governing administration bringing federal charges against a predecessor president who desires to be a future president; the uncomfortable coincidence that the sitting president is being investigated for similar possession of similarly cached documents, all converging in a toxic environment of warring conventional media and social-media forces during the beginning of a presidential campaign.

This too, is known: America is in the midst of what Daniel Patrick Moynihan – Harvard scholar, Richard Nixon aide, United Nations diplomat and Democratic senator – called, in a less fraught period, a “crisis of the regime.”

Beyond that, all is a guess, and in these circumstances, without precedent in a period of persistent social, political and cultural upheaval, there can be no educated guesses. The only byword is caveat emptor. To apply an image employed by both Plato and Longfellow: Given that America’s battered ship of state – no longer ship-shape but pounded by severe weather in rough seas – is steaming into uncharted waters, distrust all analyses, including this one.

This is because, unlike Scotland (Mary Queen of Scots), France (Louis XVI), Czarist Russia (Nicholas II), Peru (Alberto Fujimori), Brazil (Lula da Silva) and numberless other places, no top leader of the United States has faced the prospect, however dim, of imprisonment. The possession of the documents is not at the centre of his peril, but the obstruction, which in an ordinary citizen’s case would lead to an 18-month prison sentence, is.

Because the case against Mr. Trump – based on his own remarks, unforgettable photographic images, incriminating texts and compromising remarks investigators received from members of the former president’s inner circle – is not frivolous.

Because commentators of all political allegiances acknowledge that these recurrent Trump crises might well be a harbinger of an even more venomous political atmosphere, increasing the likelihood that tit-for-tat prosecutions will be commonplace and will dominate the politics of a superpower confronting challenges from China, Russia and other countries resentful of American power and prerogatives.

Because the threat of multiple constitutional crises is not trifling, including the prospect that Mr. Trump might pardon himself if, after winning a second term in the White House, he is convicted in trials that are not expected to conclude until after Election Day next year. (Within days, watch for his rivals for the Republican nomination being asked whether they would pardon Mr. Trump if they won the White House.)

Because one of the globe’s most important, stable and substantial political parties – known as the Grand Old Party but now riven by divisions that undermine its grandiosity and are entirely new – is breaking apart.

In recent days, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia asserted that “what they’re doing to President Trump is exactly what they will do to any one of us when they deem us a threat.”

Meanwhile, Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, less than a dozen years ago the Republicans’ presidential nominee, characterized the charges against Mr. Trump as “serious.” He argues that if they were proven, they “would be consistent with his other actions offensive to the national interest, such as withholding defensive weapons from Ukraine for political reasons and failing to defend the Capitol from violent attack and insurrection.”

And because this affair, while creating a dangerous moment in American history, also has trivialized American politics, with the principal figure a Fitzgerald-type tycoon with the gift of turning adversity into a personal advantage and of transforming legal liability into financial advantage.

If this were a television docudrama rather than a political Survival episode, the central element would be a mystery: Why did Mr. Trump retain a classified “plan of attack” against Iran and documents involving America’s nuclear strategies?

Perhaps it was sloppiness, perhaps it was as a means to show off at Mar-a-Lago and elsewhere to people he thinks are his friends. And perhaps former governor Chris Christie, of New Jersey, a onetime and current presidential nomination rival, had it right when he speculated that the documents were nothing more than “a trophy that he walks around and says, ‘look, I’ve got this.’”

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