In the interview Donald Trump did with Kristen Welker, broadcast Sunday on MSNBC’s “Meet the Press,” the former president revels in his mounting political strength, and for once, he’s not lying. A recent Quinnipiac poll shows him with a 50 point lead over Ron DeSantis, his nearest competitor, and he continues to build momentum. Incidentally, that poll came out the same week that Special Prosecutor Jack Smith asked Judge Tanya Chutkan for a limited gag order to stop Trump from threatening witnesses and influencing potential members of the jury in his upcoming federal trial, set to begin in early March.
Thus, Trump’s legal peril and political dominance are mounting in tandem, a dangerous recipe as the United States approaches an election that will be unlike any other, with the likely Republican nominee on trial for attempting to steal the last election. It will be a historic stress test for American democracy and society, and a major turning point, as the country either embraces autocracy built on lies, or preserves its teetering democracy and rule of law from the forces that would destroy both.
In any case, Trump’s nomination looks inevitable. Politico said it was doing what it called a “pre-mortem” over what looks to be a done deal in the Republican primary, as Trump continues to extend his lead over his bedraggled opponents. He appears to be all but unstoppable at this point, in spite of his four criminal prosecutions, and his long record of violently antidemocratic politics.
While there could still be surprises in store in Iowa or New Hampshire, at this point, it feels less and less likely to change the ultimate outcome of this primary. Rather, Trump looks set to claim his third nomination by a wide margin in a party that has never been able to resist his dark political gifts, and which remains his plaything, entirely at his disposal. Simply put, it appears that no amount of criminal indictments will keep him from seizing the nomination, incredibly. Only a conviction has any chance of stopping his political resurrection, hardly a sure thing in what will be a ferociously contested jury trial, one twisted around America’s fractured politics.
Obviously, a third Trump nomination would be extraordinarily problematic for the country, and many Americans (and Europeans) are horrified by the idea. It feels like we’re falling back into a black pit we only barely escaped, reentering a nightmare scenario for American democracy, yet again, as if we’re consciously trying to destroy ourselves.
It’s unclear if we’ll survive another dance with this particular devil.
But the Republican voting base and political class long ago swallowed Trump’s lies and embraced his antidemocratic politics, and after only the briefest wavering in the aftermath of the insurrection on January 6, and the wreckage of Trump’s catastrophic presidency, they’ve returned to the fold like lemmings dropping off a cliff. Indeed, Republican voters are apparently ready to elevate the most dangerously authoritarian candidate in the history of this nation, a man facing multiple criminal indictments for trying to steal the last election, even as he openly promises a platform of “retribution” and, quite clearly, dictatorship.
It’s a grim equation even before you tally up the fatal weaknesses of Democrats, and begin to face the prospect that voters might simply smother American democracy themselves, much like German voters did in 1933, when they elected Adolf Hitler and crushed the Weimar Republic. Historically, voters have had a nasty habit of installing dictators into power who then predictably extinguish political and press freedoms, arrest opponents, start ruinous wars, and empty the state’s coffers into their pockets. Unfortunately, democracies sometimes commit suicide, due to voters who are unable or unwilling to resist the seductive pull of authoritarian demagogues and their mass movements.
Clearly, we’re at just such a crossroads, and there’s ample reason to worry.
Indeed, at the same time as Trump seems to be sewing up the nomination, President Joe Biden is looking increasingly vulnerable politically. His polling remains anemic, as Democratic voters agonize about his advanced age, an issue Republicans harp on about constantly, despite Trump being only a few years younger, morbidly obese, and in seemingly far worse mental and physical health than the current president.
However, President Biden’s age is particularly sensitive given his unpopular VP, Kamala Harris, in what will surely be political grist for Republicans in a tight general election. And it will be tight; no one should have any illusions about that. In a recent CBS poll, Trump is beating Biden by a single point, well within the margin of error, but an ominous sign of danger about a general election where the result could easily go either way. This is particularly true in our antiquated electoral college system, which has delivered the presidency to candidates who lost the popular vote five times, including George W. Bush and Donald Trump himself.
HUNTER, HUNTER, HUNTER
As always, Republicans are excelling at political messaging, an advantage of their sheer shamelessness, and their willingness to say and do anything provided it’s politically expedient. To that end, congressional Republicans are skillfully exploiting the recent indictment of Joe Biden’s son Hunter on gun charges, and perhaps worse in the future, after his plea deal fell apart. This sets up a scenario where the president’s troubled son may be going on trial during the election, something Republicans will use to counter Trump’s own legal travails, and tarnish the president himself, potentially to great political effect.
The fact that Hunter Biden is not the president, and never tried to overturn an election is almost immaterial. It’s a political winner for Republicans, and they’re certain to capitalize on it, like the endless Benghazi hearings that tainted Hillary Clinton’s subsequent campaign through sheer repetition and innuendo, despite finding no wrongdoing on her part.
Indeed, Republicans have no problem using Hunter’s past addictions and admittedly grotesque profiting off his father’s name against the president himself, despite a glaring lack of evidence that the president was at all involved in his son’s sketchy dealings even after years of congressional fishing expeditions. Republicans have been working that angle since Trump first got himself impeached for blackmailing the president of Ukraine into providing political dirt about the Biden’s, and Hunter remains a central obsession in a Republican Party anxious to distract voters away from Trump’s own pervasive wrongdoing.
Last week, Speaker Kevin McCarthy opened what appears to be an entirely partisan impeachment inquiry into the president, a move designed mostly to save his own job from being ripped out from under him by the hard-right Freedom Caucus hijackers who are now clutching his strings, people like Matt Gaetz, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Jim Jordan, Andy Biggs, and Lauren Boebert. Incidentally, “Christian conservative” Boebert was tossed out of a Denver theater last week for vaping, groping her new boyfriend, and being generally lewd and obnoxious during a performance of family-friendly “Beetlejuice.” She initially lied about her behavior, but later apologized in the face of security footage released by the theater.
In any case, Trump’s Republican attack dogs in congress are expertly feeding Fox News and the larger right-wing echo chamber political red meat as the primary kicks into high-gear, and as Trump’s numerous prosecutions proceed. The rhetoric will only grow uglier and more unhinged as the election nears, and as Republicans face the prospect of counter-programming Trump’s criminal trials, at whatever cost.
However, Trump’s clearly feeling extremely good about his prospects, offering a typically rambling and disjointed interview to left-leaning MSNBC in which he attacked what he called the “Biden indictments,” as if his four separate prosecutions are political hits, rather than a belated but righteous response to his failed coup d’etat.
Bizarrely, President Biden has stayed silent about this crucial national issue, allowing Trump to set the narrative about something of existential importance to American democracy, as he gobbles up the political oxygen and spits out sulfurous lies. But in his desire to assure voters that he’s not prosecuting his political opponent, President Biden is ceding the stage and the story to Trump, someone who has no allegiance whatsoever to the truth, democracy, or human decency. Its a risky strategy, indeed.
At times, it feels like we’re living in Berlin in the last days of the Weimar Republic, or Moscow right before the Great Terror. You can sense the oppressive weight of things to come, dark possibilities. It’s like watching a freeway pile-up in slow motion, and knowing there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it. To think that Trump is going to be on the Republican ticket a third time is mind-boggling, almost inconceivable.
Our politics is phantasmagorical, a self-propelling Orwellian nightmare leading America to a dark political unknown. The fact that Trump seems ready to claim the nomination is beyond foreboding; once he assumes that mantel and officially reclaims leadership of the GOP, the country will enter an extraordinarily perilous situation, where Trump’s legal problems become the Republican Party’s political problems, and vice versa.
At that point, it’s a short path toward political violence and civil war.
Ultimately, prosecutors waited far too long to indict the former president, giving Trump and his mouthpieces ample time to rehabilitate him in the Republican Party in the aftermath of January 6, to the extent he even needed rehabilitation. Regardless, the GOP has long been more of a cult of personality than a modern political party, as evidenced by Trump losing the last three national elections for Republicans while simultaneously maintaining his dominance over the party, something that would be impossible in any normal political universe.
His endless stream of lies has become the new political gospel in the GOP, along with gun rights and lower taxes, despite being easily disprovable falsehoods, creating a situation where the only real reality is the one Trump constructs himself from whole cloth. Likewise, to his supporters, his criminal prosecutions aren’t evidence of his crimes, but only of his political persecution by an evil dictatorial Biden regime bent on his destruction. The natural culmination of his grievance politics is his courtroom martyrdom, something his supporters are determined to prevent at all costs, comparing him to Nelson Mandela, and the Biden administration to the totalitarian Soviet Union.
It’s as if reality itself could simply be inverted through sheer will.
And that is classic authoritarianism, a peculiar syndrome of personalist regimes, and which has infected the Republican Party like a virus. The only acceptable reality is Donald Trump’s, a pathological liar who seems to be physically incapable of honesty, or even fidelity to basic reality. As I watched his most recent interview, and his stream of consciousness responses to questions, full of rote repetition of slithering lies, I was reminded of his genius as a communicator, this innovator in the modern art of fascism.
He’s certainly a unique specimen.
As for America’s ailing democracy, it’s unclear how this country will survive another vicious, violent, and chaotic assault on reality with Trump at the top of the GOP’s ticket. With the likely Republican candidate going on trial for his freedom, and American democracy hanging by a thread, the stakes are impossibly high for both sides. It is the United States versus Donald Trump, quite literally. And whether Trump wins or loses, he’ll claim to have won, a certainty at this point in the game. 2024 will be a traumatic nightmare no matter what happens, that much is obvious.
Perhaps Trump’s federal trial will change America’s grim political trajectory somehow, though it seems likely to merely harden preexisting loyalties to Trump in the Republican Party, especially if he’s already the nominee. For all the desire to somehow separate Trump’s legal trials from America’s political process, the two things remain inextricable, and Trump is determined to keep it that way.
After all, the Republican Party is his sword and shield. The individual Trump is vulnerable, just an aging, disgraced politician. But the leader of the Republican Party has an army of supporters, and the official backing of the Republican Party’s political machinery; it’s a profound difference, with the gravest implications.
The fact that American democracy might collapse into dust is irrelevant, at least to Trump, who has never given a damn about anything but himself. Sadly, Republican voters just don’t seem to be able to grasp this very basic reality. Thus, America is about to suffer the consequences of an unrepentant criminal-politician hijacking and weaponizing the Republican Party to subvert his own prosecution, and finish the job of strangling our democracy.