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Donald Trump speaks during a campaign stop in Council Bluffs, Iowa, on Dec. 29, 2015. With a former president awaiting arraignment, the U.S. is undergoing a severe stress test.Nati Harnik

With a former president under indictment, awaiting arraignment and fighting off multiple legal challenges, the United States is undergoing perhaps its most severe stress test in more than a century and a half.

At stake at the opening of an unprecedented and deeply significant week – the expected surrender of former president Donald Trump to New York authorities and his new profile as a criminal defendant charged with at least one felony – are the stability of civil society in the United States, the foundations of the U.S. political system and the support beams of the country’s judiciary. All are facing challenges that will define the character of the country and its public affairs for the remainder of the decade and almost certainly even beyond.

The spectacle of a former president being booked, fingerprinted and subjected to a mug shot – and then exploiting his troubles for financial and political gain – transports the country into a new, chaotic political landscape and across a new frontier in social and cultural disquiet. To add to the civic peril, this crossroads occurs at a fraught moment when the country is experiencing divisions more profound than any since the Civil War, when the country quite literally fell apart.

To be sure, the United States has faced similar crises of democratic rule in the past several decades. The Watergate scandal of 1972-74, which ended with the resignation of Richard Nixon, was portrayed at the time as a national trial, testing the country’s constitutional pinions and the limits of a president’s ability to stretch the legal system and to hide behind the power of his presumed privileges and immunities. The 1998-99 impeachment drama of Bill Clinton was characterized as a further test of presidential prerogatives and set in motion an agonizing national debate over whether private sexual conduct should have public consequences.

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But the question lingers: What makes this political crisis different from all other American political crises?

  • The circumstances. “We are at a pivotal moment, with a former president who for the first time in our history tried to overturn the peaceful transition of power – and with that person being the leading presidential candidate of his party,” said Laurence Tribe, a Harvard Constitutional law professor and counsel for E. Jean Carroll, who claims in separate legal cases that Mr. Trump raped and then defamed her.
  • Mr. Trump’s circumstances. More than the leader of a party, he is the self-proclaimed leader of what he describes as a “movement.” In a fundraising appeal only days before his indictment, he told supporters, “The left thinks that if they bury me with enough witch hunts and intimidate my family and associates that I’ll eventually throw up my hands and give up on our America First movement.”
  • The establishment-oriented countermovement (the Never-Trump Movement). These two groups are at odds on stylistic issues involving Mr. Trump and on many of the elements of his movement, which he described in his fundraising appeal as battling “the Deep State, the Open Borders Lobby, global special interests, and the [George] Soros Money Machine.”
  • The use that Mr. Trump, as the world’s most famous defendant, makes of his predicament. It is telling that the rough schedule for Mr. Trump’s surrender was released by the Trump presidential campaign. His motorcade procession to Tuesday’s arraignment, and his courthouse movements surrounded by Secret Service personnel in “bubble formation,” almost surely will reappear in Trump campaign footage. Mr. Trump, who made the presidency a business opportunity and his indictment a fundraising platform, has been able to exploit his difficulties in the past; the FBI raid on his Florida home spawned a spike in contributions. (Even so, his poll ratings did not move.) When news of his indictment was circulating, Mr. Trump sent a fundraising e-mail urging supporters “to cement your place in history and accept YOUR membership as a FOUNDING DEFENDER OF PRESIDENT DONALD J. TRUMP AGAINST THIS WITCH HUNT.” Within a day, the Trump campaign raised US$4-million, with a quarter of the contributors new donors.
  • The promiscuous use of the word “weaponized” today. While he was president, Mr. Trump’s critics criticized him for “weaponizing” the government. Now that he is about to face formal charges in New York and perhaps elsewhere, he is accusing the Biden administration of “weaponizing the Justice Department.” Indeed, at his last rally, he spoke of the “weaponization of our system of justice” and described it as being “straight out of the Stalinist Russia horror show.” The weaponization charges grew even more fierce after the indictment.

“The justice system isn’t weaponized if there are grounds for charges,” said Shannon Bow O’Brien, a political scientist at the University of Texas. “Whether as President Trump or as Citizen Trump, there’s a right to hold him accountable. Nobody’s above the law in this country. Presidents are just average people with really cool jobs.”

Neither Mr. Nixon, whose resignation ended his impeachment threat, nor Mr. Clinton, who was impeached in the House of Representatives but acquitted in the Senate, faced criminal charges.

Cabaret comedian Mark Russell, who died last week but had entertained Washingtonians for decades in the Marquee Lounge at the swanky Shoreham Hotel, produced guffaws in the late Nixon years with a ballad called Jail to the Chief. Mr. Nixon never faced the serious prospect of imprisonment though, with Gandhi and the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. in mind, he spoke of how there had been important writing done in jail. The 37th president was disgraced but, riding a second political wind, eventually rehabilitated himself as a foreign-policy savant. Mr. Clinton was disbarred but remained a high-spirited former president and campaigned vigorously for his wife, Hillary Clinton, in her presidential campaign.

“I have never in my lifetime felt that the moment was so precarious,” Prof. Tribe said. “But the country has been through a lot and we have survived.”

In that spirit, Republican leaders, fearing a repeat of the tumult of the Capitol, appealed for calm, an echo of the recent remarks of French Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne. Amid public upheaval in Paris, she warned lawmakers of the danger they sowed when they “affirm that the street is more legitimate than our institutions.”

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