As soon as former President Donald Trump declared on his social media site, Truth Social, that he would be arrested on Tuesday, March 21, his congressional and media allies sprung into action to decry any legal action that could be taken against him. For many of them, the principal message was that prosecutions of former leaders are the kind of thing that you only see in authoritarian countries.
The truth is that prosecuting powerful world leaders is something we see in democracies all the time—just not in the United States. Far from weakening their governments, many of these countries rank higher than the U.S. when it comes to political rights and civil liberties. Democracies young and old have held past presidents and prime ministers accountable—and come out as strong (or stronger) on the other side. That’s because following the evidence of crimes and prosecuting leaders, when the evidence merits it, is the most powerful signal a democracy can send to its population that the law applies to everyone equally.
Read more: Donald Trump Would Be the First President Ever Criminally Charged. Others Have Come Close Though
We can look to France as an example of how to hold former elected officials accountable. In 2021, Nicolas Sarkozy became the second former French president to go to prison when he was found guilty of corruption and illegal use of campaign funds in not one, but two separate trials. During his lengthy political career, Sarkozy was viewed as a divisive politician, due to his tough-on-crime stances and his inflammatory rhetoric, referring to rioters as racaille and voyous (“scum” or “thugs”) and discussing new policing initiatives as a chance to “cleanse” immigrant, minority neighborhoods as one would do with a Kärcher, a kind of pressure washer.
So did prosecuting Sarkozy, even so many years after the offenses took place, destroy France’s democracy? It did not. Freedom House, a non-profit that focuses on the expansion and protection of freedom and democracy around the world, gave France an overall score of 89 out of 100 on its political rights and civil liberties, six points higher than the U.S. The Economist Democracy Index—which tracks democracies based on five categories: electoral process and pluralism, functioning of government, political participation, political culture, and civil liberties—shows that over the last decade, France has gone from a “flawed democracy,” ranked 27 overall, to a full democracy. Meanwhile, the U.S. has done the opposite, falling from 19th place all the way to 30th, from full democracy to “flawed democracy.”
Consider also Taiwan, a much younger democracy, still shaking off the hangover of nearly 40 years of martial law. Politics there can still be chaotic, divisive, and extremely complicated—inextricable from decades of its one-party rule and the constant threat of an attack from China. In 2010, former President Chen Shui-bian and his wife were sentenced to 19 years in prison on bribery charges. The trial was criticized by many in Taiwan as politically motivated, but it did not destroy Taiwan’s nascent democracy. Indeed, Taiwan has one of the highest rankings of any country Freedom House has ranked, topping out at 94. The Economist’s rankings put Taiwan in the top 10 democracies in the world, up from 37th place in 2013.
This shows that indicting and, if the evidence merits, imprisoning divisive leaders does not automatically lead to a deterioration of democracy, nor does it inevitably lead to ceaseless, partisan tit-for-tat of investigations and prosecutions. Evidence of this truism has been repeatedly demonstrated throughout the democratic world, as countries that hold their leaders accountable do not sink into authoritarianism. South Korea, for instance, has jailed four of its former presidents, with one, Park Geun-Hye currently serving a 20-year sentence for charges related to bribery and coercion, yet South Korea’s democracy is ranked just as strong as the U.S.
In countries like Brazil and Italy, politicians as different as Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Silvio Berlusconi have shown that leaders who face legal challenges can rally back and, in Lula’s case, retake the presidency. The same can be said of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who mounted a comeback last year despite an ongoing corruption trial. (Though, it should be noted that if Netanyahu does end up in prison, he would be the third Israeli leader to end up behind bars, most recently proceeded by Ehud Olmert who was released in 2017 after serving two-thirds of a 27-month sentence for corruption.) This should serve as a reminder that an indictment is only part of the process, but even a guilty conviction does not necessarily spell the end of someone’s political career.
In the U.S., however, we’re currently watching Republicans collectively wring their hands about holding the powerful accountable, as though Trump is untouchable under our legal system. House GOP Conference Chair Elise Stefanik (R-NY) conjured “Third World countries” in a statement decrying what she said was “the Radical Left” following “the lead of Socialist dictators.” House Speaker Kevin McCarthy—who has studiously resisted holding anyone accountable for the attempted coup on Jan. 6, 2021—suggested that a Trump indictment would “subvert our democracy.” Newly elected Senator Eric Schmitt tweeted that the potential arrest was “some Third World Banana Republic lunacy.” These messages have been echoed on conservative media too, with Tucker Carlson suggesting Monday night that a Trump indictment would “destroy America’s justice system,” which he says “we would never recover from.”
Trump is not a normal politician and prosecuting him would not require drumming up false charges. As the Research Director for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), my colleagues and I have tracked Trump’s unprecedented corruption during his time in office, and we maintain a running list of at least 56 crimes Trump has been credibly accused of committing since he first launched his campaign in 2015. The disquiet and foreboding many feel about prosecuting a former president seems to completely ignore the damage done to a justice system that seems to provide unwritten exemptions to serial violators solely because they’re wealthy and powerful.
No one should be prosecuted for their political views. But by allowing world leaders to escape investigation and indictment for crimes they may have committed simply because they happen to be politically powerful would create an undemocratic, two-tier justice system. If we withhold justice for fear of creating a cycle of retaliatory prosecutions, we will ultimately become guilty of the very erosion of democratic norms we are trying to stop.
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