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Former President Donald Trump during a campaign rally in Erie, Pa. on July 29.MADDIE MCGARVEY/The New York Times News Service

It is not surprising, and yet it still is shocking.

The latest indictment of former president Donald Trump – on four federal charges stemming from his efforts to overturn the 2020 election – has been expected for days. But the very act of attaching the forbidding phrase of “conspiracy to defraud the United States” to a onetime leader of the country and accusing him of attempting to undermine the bedrock principles of the government is a startling moment nonetheless.

The 18th-century Founders worried about the dangers of the tyranny of a majority, they fretted over what James Madison described as “the mischiefs of faction,” and they were troubled about a situation that Benjamin Franklin characterized as “when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic government, being incapable of any other.”

Only in their darkest moments did they contemplate a situation like the indictment of a former president on charges that in some senses amount to seeking to overthrow the government. But the country’s resilient founding document lacks any response to circumstances such as these. The Founders, shaped by the Scottish Enlightenment and the French Philosophes, left it to the sharp eye and the hard arm of the country’s voters to respond to such a situation.

At a campaign event in Rye, N.H, former governor Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, one of Mr. Trump’s rivals for the GOP presidential nomination, said the former president “was morally responsible for what happened January 6th,” adding, “Now we’ll see if he’s criminally responsible.”

Even though this indictment is the biggest moment yet in the legal challenges to Mr. Trump – ineluctably an act of first importance – it may simply evaporate like the puddles left by a summer rain in a sweltering Iowa farm settlement.

Though there are suggestions in poll soundings that thorough documentation of charges against Mr. Trump can have an effect on his standing, this indictment still could end up being consequential historically but without political consequences in practicality. Like other events involving Mr. Trump, it could become a marker in the country’s passage without signalling a change in its direction.

The reason: Mr. Trump still is the dominant figure in the campaign for next year’s Republican presidential nomination and retains a realistic chance of returning to the White House.

The latest Fox Business poll of Republicans in Iowa, site of the first contest in the 2024 political season, shows Mr. Trump with a 30-percentage-point advantage over his strongest competitor, Governor Ron DeSantis – a lead fuelled, according to the survey, by the perception Mr. Trump is the GOP candidate mostly likely to win the general election.

As a result, Mr. DeSantis and the other rivals for the nomination feel pressed to decry the legal action against the former president as a partisan prosecution – even as evidence mounts against him. In recent days, special counsel Jack Smith added charges to the Mar-a-Lago case, alleging that the former president wanted surveillance footage involving classified documents deleted.

Republicans overwhelmingly (at a rate of 84 per cent) believe that others would not be charged for paying hush-money to a porn star and at a similar rate (82 per cent) believe Mr. Trump is being singled out for prosecution for possession of classified materials, according to a new report from the Bright Line Watch group, a multi-university initiative housed at the University of Chicago’s Center on Democracy that monitors democratic practices.

Indeed, with his rump of loyal supporters, Mr. Trump has so warped the physics of American politics that every action of this sort – this is his third indictment, with likely more to come – fails to produce a Newtonian reaction.

The indictment sought and won by Mr. Smith will be applauded by Mr. Trump’s critics, but that is one reason why its impact may lack the power of, for example, the House judiciary committee’s vote to impeach Richard Nixon in the Watergate scandal in relative days of old.

In that 1974 event, which led to the 37th president’s resignation shortly thereafter, six of the 17 Republicans on the committee voted for articles of impeachment. There is little such sentiment in Republican ranks a half-century later.

In the miasma of contemporary American politics, the stench of Mr. Trump’s actions is accompanied by the bad odour of partisanship.

Although Republicans’ belief that Mr. Trump acted improperly in retaining classified documents has grown since Mr. Smith’s first indictment, few party members (13 per cent) believe he committed crimes in attempting to overturn the 2020 election, and fewer still (11 per cent) believe he committed a crime in the events around Jan. 6, 2021, according to the Bright Line Watch survey. But the rate of Republicans who believe that Mr. Trump acted improperly in retaining classified documents has grown since Mr. Smith’s first indictment.

Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth College political scientist involved in the Bright Line Watch survey, said that “suggests that the thorough documentation provided in the indictments changed some people’s attitudes,” adding, “When presented with specifics of the documents case, a substantial fraction of Republicans support Trump facing punishment. These shifts suggest we could see Republicans’ views evolve further.”

The Founders understood the peril in political crossroads such as this but failed to provide a remedy. “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people,” said John Adams, who would become the second president. “It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

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