While Donald Trump holds the dubious distinction of being the first former US president to run for office while facing criminal charges, he is not the first political candidate in American history to have been indicted, convicted, or even incarcerated. Trump's secretary of energy and former Texas Governor Rick Perry, for example, had an abuse-of-power charge pending against him when he briefly sought the Republican Party's presidential nomination in 2016.
Then there was Eugene Debs, who ran for president in 1920 from the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, where he was serving a ten-year sentence for violating the Sedition Act of 1918 by delivering a speech opposing the United States' involvement in World War I. Running as the Socialist Party's candidate, Debs did not win the presidency but received nearly a million votes – the most a socialist has ever received in a US presidential election.
Some convicted candidates even managed to win their races. Marion S. Barry, Jr. won a fourth term as mayor of Washington, DC, in 1994, despite serving six months in prison for drug possession four years earlier.
While it is uncommon for candidates who have previously been indicted or jailed to secure prominent government positions in democratic countries, it is not unheard of. Sometimes, it accompanies the democratisation process. Nelson Mandela won South Africa's first free election in 1994 after being imprisoned for 27 years by the apartheid regime. More recently, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva won in 2022 after being sentenced to a 12-year prison term on corruption charges, of which he served less than two before his conviction was annulled.
Others have benefited politically from their time behind bars, Adolf Hitler being the most infamous example. Before his failed coup d'état in Munich in 1923, Hitler was a relatively unknown beer hall agitator with a criminal record. He was sentenced to five years in prison for the Beer Hall Putsch, but not before he became a national news story after the remarkably sympathetic judges allowed him to present his political arguments.
Hitler ended up serving only nine months in Landsberg prison, during which he wrote his antisemitic manifesto, Mein Kampf. By the time he was released, he had become famous. Less than a decade later, the former rabble-rouser was Germany's Führer.
Former Japanese Prime Minister Kishi Nobusuke, the grandfather of the late Prime Minister Abe Shinzō, is another example. Unlike Hitler, Kishi was a member of 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 within the government bureaucracy. Remarkably, he was still in his thirties when he was entrusted with overseeing the economy of Manchukuo, the Japanese puppet state in Manchuria, where he ruled over an industrial empire built on Chinese slave labour. During the Pacific War, Kishi served as vice minister of munitions.
Kishi could be likened to Albert Speer, Hitler's architect and minister of munitions, who was handed a 20-year prison sentence by the Nuremberg tribunal, largely owing to his exploitation of slave labour. But, despite being arrested for war crimes in 1945 and imprisoned for three and a half years, Kishi was never formally tried and convicted.
During his incarceration, Kishi plotted his political comeback with fellow prisoners, including a notorious gangster and a prominent Japanese fascist. After the Americans determined that opposing Chinese and Soviet communism was more important than prosecuting Japanese war criminals, they decided that Kishi was just the kind of man they needed. Running for the highest office soon after he was released, Kishi repaid the Americans' trust by consolidating Japan as a staunchly anti-communist US ally. He served as Japan's prime minister from 1957 to 1960.
Trump is neither a dictator nor a war criminal. He is a malevolent self-promoter seeking to leverage his legal troubles for political and financial gain. As a self-proclaimed outsider, he has turned his indictments into political assets, portraying himself as a martyr persecuted by entrenched, corrupt elites.
So far, at least, his strategy seems to be working. Each new indictment has boosted Trump's popularity among Republican voters and fueled more contributions to his presidential campaign. With his motorcades and incendiary speeches attacking and mocking judges and prosecutors, Trump's public appearances are sensational media spectacles. When he steps into a courtroom – particularly 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 Trump will succeed. Hitler, for example, lost the 1932 presidential election to the esteemed but ageing Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg. At 84, Hindenburg bore some resemblance to US President Joe Biden in at least one respect: moderates and leftists voted for him just to prevent his demagogic opponent from rising to power. But the Nazis had become the largest party in the Reichstag, and conservative politicians, industrialists, and businesspeople made the fatal mistake of supporting Hitler as the new chancellor in 1933. Their misguided belief that they could rein in Hitler's ambitions hastened the demise of German democracy.
To be sure, the US today is not the Weimar Republic, and Biden is not Hindenburg. Trump's violent rhetoric and threats against opponents are worrying, especially since many of his supporters are armed. But without the support of the armed forces, as well as Wall Street, it is difficult to see how he could force his way into power. In a creaky electoral system that favours rural over urban America it is of course possible that he will win enough votes to become president, even while running his campaign from a prison cell.
A Trump victory wouldn't be anything like Hitler's coup in 1933, but it would be bad enough, and certainly much worse than Japan under Kishi in the late 1950s. Counting on indictments to prevent Trump from winning is as misguided as German conservatives' notion that they could tame Hitler. As history has shown, sometimes crime does pay.
Ian Buruma is the author, most recently, of The Collaborators: Three Stories of Deception and Survival in World War II (Penguin, 2023).
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Project Syndicate, and is published by special syndication arrangement.