Butterfly Effect: Trump Trial Lessons From Brazil and South Korea
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
A divided Congress can't convince America it places justice over politics. The courts can do an imperfect but better job.
Charu Sudan Kasturi
OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.
For many Americans, the Jan. 6 mob attack on the Capitol, encouraged by former President Donald Trump, was an act of treason. Democrats and some Republicans hold Trump directly responsible and believe he needs to face justice.
Yet even as a twice-impeached Trump awaits a trial in the Senate, enough Americans view the proceedings against him through the prism of partisan politics. He’s no longer in office. Is it time to let him fade into history? Will action against Trump risk polarizing the nation further by igniting passions among his most fervent supporters, who see him as a victim of a political conspiracy by America’s liberal elite? Alternatively, would failure on the part of a divided Senate to convict Trump fuel more cynicism about Washington and its politics?
There are no easy answers. But if America looks beyond its borders, it’ll find two other major democracies — Brazil and South Korea — that have grappled with similar questions in recent years. Since 2016, Brazil and South Korea have both impeached presidents. But in each of those cases, the impeached leaders have also faced trials before courts, with the judiciary — and not a partisan parliament — deliberating on their alleged offenses. Simply put, both countries put the notion of justice over political expediency. Their experiences hold valuable lessons for the U.S. as it tries to disinfect the wounds its political system has suffered in recent years.
The parallels with South Korea are particularly striking. After the country’s Parliament impeached President Park Geun-hye in 2017 on charges of corruption, her supporters stormed Seoul in a violent riot that left at least three protesters dead and several police officers injured.
But Park wasn’t just removed from office — she was convicted in a court of law on charges of accepting bribes from Samsung’s leadership. She’s in jail and faces 22 years behind bars after a court upheld her conviction earlier this month. When the government of current President Moon Jae-in prosecuted Park, critics — including global analysts — wondered whether the move would consolidate the schism within Korean politics revealed by the Seoul riot.
Instead, the court verdict against Park lent credibility to her impeachment and injected additional support for Moon’s attempts to battle corruption. Moon’s popularity ratings crossed 80 percent at one point, and his Democratic Party secured a landslide win in last year’s legislative elections.
Across the Pacific Ocean, Brazil has seen even greater political churn. In 2016, then President Dilma Rousseff was impeached and now faces corruption charges. Her predecessor and mentor, former President Lula Inácio da Silva, was convicted of corruption in 2017 and then again — in a separate case — in 2019. Lula and Rousseff’s successor, Michel Temer, have both been in and out of jail over the past couple of years. Temer too is accused of corruption.
To be sure, the court cases against Lula, Rousseff and Temer in Brazil and Park in South Korea haven’t served as closure or as balm for the deep political fissures within those nations.
In Brazil, many supporters of the leftist Workers’ Party believe that Lula and Rousseff — both from the party — are victims of a deep-seated conservative conspiracy. To supporters of Park in South Korea, the conservative former president has been the target of a leftist plot.
But by turning to the courts after impeaching their presidents, South Korea and Brazil have let the judiciary decide the future of those leaders, presenting at least the veneer of objective justice as opposed to bare-knuckle politics. More importantly, it has allowed both nations to address deeper crises of political corruption. In South Korea, for instance, a court in January sentenced Samsung Vice Chairman Jay Y. Lee to 30 months in prison for bribing Park — a landmark judgment given that Samsung is South Korea’s biggest firm.
So what does all this mean for the U.S.? A 1969 U.S. Supreme Court verdict that overturned the conviction of a Ku Klux Klan leader for incendiary speech might shield Trump under America’s broad free speech protections. But some experts believe conviction is a serious possibility if the former president is prosecuted.
If Congress has the last word on Trump, America will be no closer to a consensus that would allow it to truly move on. Democrats are unlikely to be able to muster enough Republican support in the Senate to convict the former president there. Trump’s critics will allege that he was saved not by the law but by the political partisanship of 2021.
Instead, if — independent of what the Senate does — Trump were to face criminal charges in a court of law, the outcome would carry greater credibility. Sure, the most faithful among his supporters wouldn’t accept any adverse verdict. But remember, it was the Supreme Court’s refusal to entertain baseless claims of voter fraud that at the end of the day made many Republicans grudgingly accept Trump’s loss. And if the courts acquit Trump? That too would need to be accepted by his critics. Either way, a judicial verdict would carry greater credibility than anything Congress does.
Yes, it’s tempting for America to search for more peaceful times by treating the past four years and the events of Jan. 6 as bad dreams that are now over. But as Brazil and South Korea have shown, a different way is possible — one that recognizes that there can’t really be peace without justice.
- Charu Sudan Kasturi Contact Charu Sudan Kasturi