Every Trump indictment tells a story
By Ross Douthat
Let’s assume, because it seems like a reasonable assumption, that we have not reached the end of the indictments that will be handed down against Donald Trump. Let’s assume that either the case in Georgia, where he is being investigated for election tampering, or the special counsel’s continuing investigation in Washington, will yield a prosecution related to his conduct between the November 2020 election and the riot on Jan. 6, 2021.
In that case, Trump’s various indictments would double as a road map to his presidency and his era — each fitting with a different interpretation of the Trump phenomenon, and only together giving the fullest picture of his times.
The first indictment, New York’s case against Trump for campaign finance violations related to his alleged affair with the adult thespian Stormy Daniels, fits neatly into the narrative of the Trump era that’s often called “anti-anti-Trump.” This interpretation concedes, to some degree at least, Trump’s sleaziness and folly, but then it invariably insists that his enemies in the American establishment are actually more dangerous — because they’re “protecting democracy” by trampling its norms, embracing conspiracy theories and conducting pointless witch hunts.
It’s hard to imagine a better illustration of the anti-anti-Trumpist case than an ideological prosecutor in a Democratic city indicting a former president on a charge considered dubious even by many liberal legal experts. “Norms,” indeed: The Stormy Daniels case looks like Resistance theater, partisan lawfare, exactly the kind of overreach that Trump’s defenders insist defines the entirety of anti-Trumpism.
The new federal indictment, for which Trump was arraigned in Miami on Tuesday, moves us into different terrain. This time the case seems legitimate, and even if charges brought under the Espionage Act have a fairly checkered history, on its face the indictment makes a strong case that Trump asked for this, that he invited the prosecution, that he had plenty of opportunities to stay within the law and chose to obstruct, evade and dissemble instead.
But at the same time one would need a heart of stone not to find the whole classified documents affair a little bit comedic: blackly comic, to be sure, in the vein of the Coen brothers, but for all its serious aspects still essentially absurd. The boxes piled high in the gaudy Mar-a-Lago bathroom is an indelible image for anyone who interprets the Trump era as a vainglorious clown show, with its pileup of scandals driven by narcissism and incompetence, and its serious-minded interpreters worrying about the Authoritarian Menace or the Crisis of Democracy when the evidence before their eyes was usually much shallower and stupider, not the 1930s come again but a reality television mindset run amok.
In the end, though, the reality-television reading was insufficient, because Trump groped his way into genuinely sinister territory — seeking what would have been a constitutional crisis if his postelection wishes had been granted and inspiring mob violence when he didn’t get his way.
That aspect of his presidency still awaits its juridical illumination. But we may well get it, and if there is a prosecution related to his postelection conduct, it will complete a presidential triptych — with the persecuted Trump, the farcical Trump and the sinister Trump each making an appearance in our courts.
As a matter of electoral politics, Trump’s resilience as a primary candidate depends upon Republican voters interpreting the entire triptych in the light of its first installment — such that his enemies’ overreach is the only thing that his admirers and supporters see, and both his more absurd behaviors and his most destructive acts are assumed to be exaggerated or invented, just so much liberal hype and NeverTrump hysteria.
This perspective is false, but it is well entrenched among Republicans and has the advantage of simplicity. Meanwhile, Trump’s rivals for the nomination are stuck playing “on the one hand, on the other hand” games — constantly insisting that Trump has been unfairly treated, because Republican voters believe as much and clearly want to hear it stated, while trying to gently nurture the idea that he brings some of this mistreatment on himself and a different Republican might be just as effective without the constant grist for enemies and prosecutors.
In a general election environment, though, we have strong evidence from the recent midterms that many swing voters reverse the Republican interpretation of the triptych, and read the whole of Trumpism in light of its darkest manifestation. Both the liberal overreach they might have opposed and the Trumpian shenanigans they might have tolerated are subsumed by a desire to avoid a repeat of Jan. 6, a revulsion against GOP candidates who seem intent on replaying Trump’s destabilizing behavior.
It’s possible to imagine that the multiplication of indictments, the constant action in the courts, eventually helps Republican voters who don’t share this interpretation to recognize how many of their fellow Americans do hold it, making Trump seem too unelectable at last.
But Trump has always thrived by persuading a critical mass of Republicans to live inside his reality, not anybody else’s. And inside that gaudy mansion, the walls have room for just one outsize, garish portrait: “The Martyrdom of Donald Trump.”