March 31, 2023 – For the first time in U.S. history, a former U.S. president — Donald J. Trump — has been indicted on criminal charges. West Virginia University political science experts Mason Moseley and Jay Krehbiel are looking at the experiences of other democratic countries around the world as a frame of reference for what is now happening in America.
Moseley, an associate professor at the WVU Eberly College of Arts and Sciences Department of Political Science, teaches comparative politics, Latin American politics and contentious politics. His research examines comparative political behavior, particularly how institutional characteristics and processes shape individual level political attitudes and participation.
Krehbiel is an associate professor of political science and focuses on comparative judicial institutions and modern liberal democracy. His work examines the relationship between courts and elected branches of government.
“Obviously, the indictment of a former president is unprecedented in the U.S. But it has happened in many other countries: Argentina, France, Israel and Portugal have all had former executives stand trial, primarily for corruption charges. These are established democracies — not authoritarian states where dictators are jailing their opponents.
“In a country as polarized as the U.S., Trump supporters will view any charges as being politically motivated. And indicting Trump carries certain risks in terms of provoking unrest in the near term and escalating ‘constitutional hardball’ between parties in the long term, similar to events happening now in Israel. But allowing the rule of law to erode slowly over time is also dangerous and is something we have observed in countries like Hungary and Venezuela that have drifted towards authoritarianism in recent years.
“There is no way to know what will happen next. But looking to the experiences of other democratic countries across the world is probably a good place to start.” — Mason Moseley, associate professor, political science, WVU Eberly College of Arts and Sciences
“Criminal charges against political leaders are not nearly as uncommon as we might think. Even though no former or sitting U.S. president has been indicted, there are numerous examples of this from around the world. A few that come to mind include the corruption trial of former French president Nicolas Sarkozy — he was convicted but has appealed, the ongoing corruption charges against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s many charges including tax fraud, and the conviction of Austria’s former vice-chancellor for corruption. And these are examples from established democracies.
“Many more examples exist if we look to countries transitioning to democracy, such as the Trial of the Juntas in Argentina after that country’s democratization in the 1980s. So, while this is new ground for American democracy, it is by no stretch novel in the broader context of modern democratic systems governed by the rule of law.
“The U.S. is unique in that prosecutors such as the one in New York that brought charges have clear partisan labels and are, more often than not, elected. That the prosecutor holds office as a Democrat makes it much easier for those inclined to do so to label any charges as politically motivated, something that is harder to do given the more apolitical nature of staffing prosecutors’ offices in most countries. While this doesn’t stop some from complaining about politicized trials, it does provide some insulation from the types of political attacks we are seeing here. These pose a real danger to the country’s democracy and the rule of law as Americans increasingly see legal institutions from the Supreme Court to local prosecutors as political actors and not legal ones.” — Jay Krehbiel, associate professor, political science, WVU Eberly College of Arts and Sciences