June 4, 2023
An American Tragedy, Act III

An American Tragedy, Act III

Former President Donald Trump, twice impeached, yet impervious to shame, was indicted Thursday on criminal charges related to the payment of hush money to a porn star. There was a time in American history, almost impossible to recollect now, when such a sentence, such a plot point, would have been beyond our imagining. That has not been the case for a very long time.

In early 2016, the ascent of such a clownish demagogue, a sleazy real-estate hustler who had only begun to reveal the full depths of his bigotry and authoritarian impulses, was a laugh line. At the time of his last State of the Union address, Barack Obama gave an airily confident interview to Matt Lauer, of NBC, asserting that the “overwhelming majority” of the electorate would see through Trump’s “simplistic solutions and scapegoating” and elect Hillary Clinton. Lauer pressed Obama: “In no part of your mind and brain can you imagine Donald Trump standing up one day and delivering the State of the Union address?”

Obama found that funny. “Well,” he said through laughter, “I can imagine it in a ‘Saturday Night’ skit.”

Some months later, as Trump pulled closer to Hillary Clinton in the polls, editors at The New Yorker assigned Evan Osnos, who had reported on the reactionary forces and militias supporting Trump, to do a long, speculative article on the unthinkable. The piece, headlined “President Trump’s First Term,” was at once a serious inquiry, full of interviews with wise heads in both political parties, and an editorial stunt. It ran along with a photomontage of Trump standing in the Oval Office and staring serenely out high windows at the winter landscape. The reaction among readers was one of alarm, as if by envisioning a Trump Presidency we had somehow increased its possibility.

In fact, Osnos approached his task with sobriety and care. “After more than a year of candidate Trump, Americans are almost desensitized to each new failing exhumed from his past—the losing schemes and cheapskate cruelties, the discrimination and misogyny—much as they are to the daily indecencies of the present: the malice toward a grieving mother, the hidden tax records, the birther fiction and other lies,” he wrote. “But where, in all that, is much talk of the future? By mid-September, Trump was in the final sprint of his campaign, having narrowed the gap behind Clinton in the popular vote from nine points, in August, to reach a virtual tie. His victory is no longer the stuff of dark comedy or fan fiction. It is fair to ask: What would he actually be like as a President?”

Osnos accurately anticipated Trump’s agenda on policies from immigration to taxes, and, in many ways, he glimpsed the darkness of Trump’s character and intentions, but he could not (and no one could) fully anticipate all that lay ahead: the lunacy, the incompetence, the daily scandals and deceptions, the mob-like criminality, the impeachments and Capitol insurrection––or, now, what is sure to be a prolonged season of criminal indictments, first in New York and, quite likely, in Georgia and Washington, D.C.

With this indictment, we have entered a new act in the saga, one in which Trump contemplates turning a potential perp walk into a campaign opportunity. Who else could envision fingerprints, a mugshot, and cuffs as tools in an effort to “consolidate the base”?

Trump reacted to the indictment––which he called “Political Persecution and Election Interference at the highest level in history”––by lashing out at President Biden and “Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg, who was hand-picked and funded by George Soros.” Recently, Trump characterized Bragg, who is Black, as a “racist” and called him a “degenerate psychopath” and “human scum.”

Trump’s closest opponent in the race for the Republican Presidential nomination, Governor Ron DeSantis, of Florida, responded with an ardent defense of the American justice system and a muted call to let the courts do their work. No, he did not. For fear of offending the Trump base that he hopes to inherit, DeSantis said, “The weaponization of the legal system to advance a political agenda turns the rule of law on its head. It is un-American. The Soros-backed Manhattan District Attorney has consistently bent the law. . . .” etc. (It is good to know that Trump and DeSantis, who have come to despise each other, can at least agree on one of the most persistent of all contemporary antisemitic tropes, the all-powerful perfidy of George Soros.) DeSantis also assured the American people that should Trump fail to appear in Manhattan for arraignment, he would not extradite him from Mar-a-Lago. Trump has yet to express his appreciation.

We haven’t been given access to the New York indictment––those papers remain sealed––but it is quite likely that potential criminal charges stemming from Trump’s role in the Capitol insurrection and election-law tampering in Georgia will be more straightforward and compelling. Some legal experts have said that the New York case is weaker, more complicated, than the others. We shall see.

What we do know is that the former President will do and say anything to turn these cases to his advantage; he will attempt to burnish his image as savior and martyr of the MAGA millions; he will do and say anything to deepen his bond with voters who, as he tells them day after day, are the victims of élites in the media, the universities, the courts, and beyond. And, as he proved on January 6, 2021, Trump is prepared to foment violence and civil strife so long as it furthers his interests. Faced with prosecution, he recently threatened the prospect of “death and destruction.”

Trump is, if anything, more unhinged than he was in his final days in the White House. At the recent CPAC convention his speech had a quality of wildness that made the ranting nativism of his 2016 inaugural seem as mild as the murmurings of Martin Van Buren or Warren G. Harding. As you read, remember this is the leading candidate for the Republican nomination:

The sinister forces trying to kill America have done everything they can to stop me, to silence you, and to turn this nation into a socialist dumping ground for criminals, junkies, Marxists, thugs, radicals, and dangerous refugees that no other country wants. No other country wants them. If those opposing us succeed, our once beautiful U.S.A. will be a failed country that no one will even recognize. A lawless, open borders, crime-ridden, filthy, communist nightmare. That’s what it’s going and that’s where it’s going. . . . That’s why I’m standing before you, because we are going to finish what we started. We started something that was a miracle. We’re going to complete the mission. We’re going to see this battle through to ultimate victory.

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