Elected Criminals, by Ian Buruma
Although Donald Trump holds the dubious merit of being the first former US president to run for office again while facing criminal charges, he is not the first political candidate in the country's history to be impeached, convicted, or even imprisoned. Trump's energy secretary and former Texas governor, Rick Perry, for example, was accused of abuse of power when he briefly ran for president as a Republican in 2016.
We also have Eugene Debs, who ran for president in 1920 from federal prison in Atlanta while serving a 10-year sentence for violating the Sedition Act of 1918 with a speech in which he opposed U.S. participation in the First World War. Debs, candidate of the Socialist Party, did not win the presidency, but received almost 1 million votes (a record for socialists in American presidential elections).
Some candidates even went on to win the race: Marion S. Barry, Jr. won a fourth term as mayor of Washington, DC in 1994 despite having spent six months in prison for drug possession four years earlier.
Although it is not common for accused or imprisoned candidates to obtain prominent government positions in democratic countries, there is a history of this. Sometimes it is something that accompanies the democratization process: Nelson Mandela won the first free South African elections in 1994 after spending 27 years imprisoned by the apartheid regime; and recently Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva achieved victory in 2022 after being sentenced to 12 years in prison for corruption, of which he spent less than 2 in prison until the conviction was annulled.
Others reaped political benefits from their time behind bars: Adolf Hitler is the most unfortunate example. Before the failed coup d'état he orchestrated in Munich in 1923, Hitler was a relatively unknown firebrand, who made speeches in beer halls and had a criminal record. He was sentenced to five years in prison for the so-called “Brewery Coup,” but not before making national news when surprisingly sympathetic judges allowed him to present his political arguments.
Hitler only spent nine months in Landsberg prison, during which time he wrote his anti-Semitic manifesto My Struggle. By the time they released him, he was already famous. Less than a decade later, the agitator had become the German Führer.
Another example is that of former Japanese Prime Minister Kishi Nobusuke, grandfather of the late Prime Minister Abe Shinzō. Unlike Hitler, Kishi belonged to his country's bureaucratic elite.
After graduating from Tokyo Imperial University (now the University of Tokyo) at the top of his class, Kishi quickly rose through the ranks of the government bureaucracy. It is surprising that he was not yet 40 when he was entrusted with overseeing the economy of Manchukuo, the Japanese puppet state in Manchuria, where he ruled an industrial empire based on Chinese slave labor. During the Pacific War, Kishi served as the vice minister of munitions.
We can compare Kishi with Albert Speer, Hitler's architect and armaments minister, who received a 20-year prison sentence at the Nuremberg Trials—mainly for exploiting slave labor—but despite having been arrested for crimes war in 1945 and having spent three and a half years in prison, Kishi was never formally tried and convicted.
During his imprisonment, Kishi planned a political return along with his fellow prisoners, including a well-known gangster and prominent Japanese fascist. When Americans decided that opposing Chinese and Soviet communism was more important than prosecuting Japanese war criminals, they decided Kishi was exactly the kind of person they needed. Kishi ran for the top office shortly after his release and repaid the trust of Americans by establishing Japan as a staunch anti-communist ally of the U.S. He served as Prime Minister of Japan from 1957 to 1960.
Trump is neither a dictator nor a war criminal, but rather someone malicious who tries to self-publicize by taking advantage of his legal problems for political and financial benefits. He proclaimed himself as outsider establishment and turned the accusations into political assets, presenting himself as a martyr persecuted by the entrenched and corrupt political elites.
At least so far, the strategy appears to be working: Each new accusation boosted his popularity among Republican voters and attracted more contributions to his presidential campaign. With his parades and incendiary speeches in which he attacks and mocks judges and prosecutors, his public appearances are sensational media spectacles. When he enters court — especially in Fulton County, Georgia, where his trial for election interference will be televised and livestreamed — Trump will undoubtedly relish the opportunity to campaign from the dock.
None of this implies that it will be successful. Hitler, for example, lost the 1932 presidential election to the esteemed but aging Captain General Paul von Hindenburg. Hindenburg, 84, bore some resemblance to US President Joe Biden, at least in one respect: Moderates and leftists voted for him just to prevent his demagogic opponent from coming to power. But the Nazis had become the largest party in the Reichstag, and industrialists, businessmen, and conservative politicians made the fatal mistake of supporting Hitler as the new chancellor in 1933. They were wrong to believe that they could limit Hitler's ambitions, and this accelerated the fall of German democracy.
Of course, the current US is not the Weimar Republic and Biden is not Hindenburg. Trump's violent rhetoric and threats against rivals are worrying, especially because many of his supporters are armed, but without the support of the military and Wall Street it is difficult for him to force his way to power. In a decrepit electoral system that favors rural areas more than urban areas it is possible, of course, for him to get enough votes to become president, even running the campaign from a prison cell.
A Trump victory would be nothing like Hitler's coup of 1933, but it would be bad enough and certainly much worse than Kishi's Japan in the late 1950s. Those who count on the accusations to prevent him from winning are so wrong. like the conservatives when they thought they could tame Hitler. As history shows us, sometimes crime does pay.
Spanish translation by Ant-Translation
Ian Buruma's latest book is The Collaborators: Three Stories of Deception and Survival in World War II [Los colaboradores: tres historias de decepción y supervivencia en la Segunda Guerra Mundial] (Penguin, 2023).
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023.
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