The People vs. Donald Trump

The battle between autocracy and democracy in America

13 mins read
Trump

Only a few days ago, it looked like former president and current Republican nominee Donald J. Trump would be on the hook for more than half a billion dollars, after he lost not one but two major civil trials in quick succession in New York, relating to his defamation of E. Jean Caroll after she accused him of rape, and pervasive business fraud in his real estate dealings. While Trump secured a nearly $92 million bond for the defamation case, he was having far less luck in the fraud case, unable to pay an eye-popping $464 million judgment, after being found guilty of fraudulently inflating his net worth and the value of his assets for decades.

By all accounts, he was on the brink of suffering a devastating defeat.

Since by his own admission it was a “practical impossibility” for him to secure such an enormous bond, it seemed like he might be forced into a fire sale of one of his marquee properties in New York, or worse, a seizure by the attorney general’s office of his bank accounts and/or real estate. For a moment, there seemed to be a real possibility that AG Letitia James might simply seize Trump Tower or 40 Wall Street, in what would have been a humiliating catastrophe for Trump. Obviously, such an outcome posed a grave threat to him not only financially but also politically, gutting Trump’s carefully curated image of himself as a savvy businessman and billionaire, and emptying his wallet in the process. 

However, Trump’s knack for escaping accountability prevailed again.

He was given the gift of salvation by a friendly appellate court, which came to his rescue at the 11th hour, bailing him out of the most serious financial crisis since his run of bankruptcies in the early 1990s. Ultimately, the danger abruptly receded when a Manhattan appeals court inexplicably reduced the size of the bond from $464 to a much more manageable $175 million. They then gave Trump an additional 10 days to pay the shrunken judgment. Pulling up in front of cameras outside the courtroom, Trump could barely contain his glee at the reprieve. 

He was effusive: “I greatly respect the decision of the appellate division and I’ll post the $175 million in cash or bonds or security or whatever is necessary very quickly within the 10 days, and I thank the appellate division for acting quickly.”

Indeed, the move seemed to suggest that the appellate court was skeptical of Judge Arthur Engoron’s verdict and/or judgment in the case, giving Trump reason to believe the case might be overturned on the appeal he was pursuing. The panel of Appellate Division judges offered no legal rationale for their decision, which amounted to a crucial legal victory for Trump, one among many in recent weeks. 

Justice delayed, justice denied

First, there was the near implosion of the Georgia RICO case after DA Fani Willis was found to have had a secret affair with the lead prosecutor she’d hired, Nathan Wade. Trump’s lawyers said Wade was both unqualified for such a momentous case, and overpaid, making $650,000 a year. Worse, Trump’s lawyers leveled accusations of financial impropriety by Willis herself, after it was revealed the couple took pricey vacations together, allegedly paid for by Fulton County taxpayers. 

It was a mess, and Trump’s attorneys milked it for all it was worth, punishing the prosecution for its incredible lapse in judgment. His attorneys turned a hearing on Willis’s disqualification into a sordid nationally-televised soap opera, with multiple lawyers grilling the district attorney overseeing the case, in a role reversal that saw the DA answering hostile questions about her private romantic and financial affairs from inside the witness box. 

In a memorable scene, a frustrated Fani Willis said: “You’ve been intrusive into people’s personal lives. You’re confused. You think I’m on trial. These people are on trial for trying to steal an election in 2020. I’m not on trial, no matter how hard you try to put me on trial.”

But the fact that she was sitting in the witness box testifying suggested otherwise. Obviously, this wasn’t a great look for potential jurors in Georgia, to say the least. Ultimately, though, Willis survived the effort by Trump and his 14 codefendants’ attorneys to boot her off the case, albeit with the case and her reputation badly damaged. Nathan Wade resigned, and the case is set to continue stumbling forward, battered by allegations of prosecutorial misconduct, and with the DA’s credibility in tatters. Meanwhile, Trump’s lawyers are appealing the ruling allowing Willis to remain on the case. It’s unclear if it will make it to trial prior to the election, or at all. 

SCOTUS

Things are hardly more optimistic in Trump’s other pending cases, where his grand legal strategy might best be described with a single verb: delay. 

If he wins the election, his two federal prosecutions will effectively die, after Trump instructs his new attorney general to stand down. Until then, every possible delaying tactic is being employed to slow things down to a crawl, with Trump’s horde of attorneys producing an avalanche of frivolous motions, litigation, and appeals, clearly designed to paralyze the prosecutions. 

Unfortunately, AG Merrick Garland’s excruciatingly slow investigation offered Trump an invaluable gift, eating up a huge amount of time, and ensuring the prosecution would eventually be running against the clock. The prosecution began late, and now time is running out. In a recent interview, Adam Schiff said, “I think that delay has contributed to a situation where none of these trials may go forward.” He continued, ““The department bears some of that responsibility.”

Clearly, Trump’s relishing the torturously long delays afforded by the Supreme Court’s plodding review, with a right-wing supermajority he installed during his presidency, as it considers his patently absurd argument that as president he had absolute immunity, and is essentially above the law. It’s a brazen and preposterous argument, antithetical to any conception of democratic government, though America’s highest court is acting as if it deserves serious scrutiny.

It would be a more serious argument if the U.S. were a monarchy and Trump were a king. But the U.S. is not a monarchy, and Trump is not a king, at least not yet. Regardless, the Supreme Court felt it needed to take up this question of presidential immunity. It’s doing this at a glacially slow pace, freezing Jack Smith’s two federal cases in the process, and almost certainly preventing Trump from facing the two strongest criminal cases prior to the election. By delaying the case, the Supreme Court is providing Trump with de facto immunity, regardless of how it later rules. Presumably, it will reject that farcical argument at some point, when it gets around to it.

Meanwhile, SCOTUS quickly and unanimously ruled against the effort by the state of Colorado to bar Trump from being on the ballot there, per the 3rd clause of the 14th amendment, passed in the aftermath of the Civil War, and which bans oath-breaking insurrectionists from holding office. The Supreme Court ruled on purely procedural grounds, neglecting to even address the central question before the court, of whether the U.S. Constitution prohibits oath-breakers guilty of “insurrection or rebellion” from “holding any office,” as the text plainly states. It was yet another major victory for the former president, and a terrible defeat for our ailing constitutional democracy. Our laws and Constitution only work if we enforce them, something SCOTUS utterly failed to do.

Additionally, Trump just got a massive infusion of cash. His Orwellian social media company, Truth Social, began trading on the Nasdaq stock exchange this week, and is suddenly worth nearly $10 billion dollars. On paper, Trump just doubled his net worth. The company is trading under the ticker DJT, and will presumably provide a major windfall for Trump’s cash-strapped campaign, even if its multibillion dollar valuation “defies logic,” according to financial analysts. 

Taken together, it’s the kind of head-spinning rebound we’ve all come to expect by now, and it reinforces the perception that Trump’s supply of serendipitous good luck is simply inexhaustible. Despite an almost endless cascade of calamities, scandals, dire legal threats, and ordinarily career-ending entanglements, Trump always seems to emerge not just unscathed, but somehow stronger. It’s as if the normal laws of politics just don’t apply to him, like he’s immune from all human repercussions whatsoever.

Utterly untouchable

For his critics, and for those of us who remain preoccupied by his violent authoritarian politics, it’s a time of mounting dread and anxiety. The former president seems to exist far outside the normal bounds governing political, legal, ethical, behavioral, and cultural life in America. It’s as if he has a standing exemption to do whatever he pleases, with the expectation that he will never be held to account. This has been a constant running theme throughout Trump’s disastrous political career, and we’ve all slowly become accustomed to watching him break the law with impunity.

As Trump himself once so presciently observed, he could shoot someone on 5th Avenue and his supporters wouldn’t abandon him. Likewise, he could pistol whip our democracy, blast a hole right through the heart of our constitutional republic, and stab the rule of law with a butcher knife.

And no one is going to stop him. 

At this point, it’s perfectly clear that if the election were held today, Trump would likely win, a terrifying reality for the country, and the world. This election will determine whether American democracy is strangled or survives, whether we descend into the predictable hell of right-wing dictatorship, or finally begin to stanch the bleeding wounds of Trumpism. It’s one of those rare binary black-and-white choices, between good and evil, democracy and dictatorship, truth and lies, right and wrong. 

Everything is on the line in America. It’s impossible to overstate the gravity of this moment; it’s a turning point for the country and the world, as our democracy faces the supreme stress test of a popular demagogue intent on sabotaging democracy from within to achieve absolute, unfettered power.

For his part, Trump continues to demonstrate an uncanny ability to bounce back from, and exploit, even the worst kind of disaster. Exhibit A is the way he used his indictments to pave the way for him to seize the nomination, literally turning his mugshot into a campaign poster. Every additional criminal indictment seemed to further solidify his base of support in the Republican Party, and he won the primary easily, with minimal effort on the basis of those criminal charges. Despite becoming desensitized and benumbed by it all, our senses deadened by the daily onslaught of outrages during the Trump era, it’s really quite remarkable when you stop and think about that. 

91 criminal charges actually eased Trump’s path to the nomination, rather than shattering his political career. It’s a testament to the way our politics have been upended, left deformed and maimed, barely breathing. Broken.

Trump is supremely skilled at transforming what should be total defeat and umitigated failure into rocket fuel for his populist political movement, further galvanizing his supporters, and strengthening his cult of personality. Much of this has to do with the way he twists and contorts reality with self-serving lies, manufacturing his own truth. He turned a chaotic, failed presidency into a singular success; he transformed an election loss into a resounding victory, stolen from him and his supporters.

The fact that these are easily disprovable lies doesn’t matter if people are willing to believe them. If nothing else, Trump has shown us the latent political power of simple lies, repeated ad nauseam until they become real. If you’re shameless and venal enough to lie like that, almost anything is possible.

Political pathology

Of course, Trump’s ability to survive the unthinkable and profit off of his own antisocial behavior is hardly a new phenomenon. Trump’s charmed streak began long ago, and continues now, a product of what might best be described as his preternatural ability to evade and avoid all normal human consequences. Then again, he’s not a normal person, constrained by even a shard of ethics, morality, or empathy. Rather, he’s riddled with personality disorders, a sociopathic narcissist and a pathological liar, but these traits enable him to shine as a charismatic demagogue, particularly with the Republican Party so utterly beaten and defeated, serving his every whim.

Impunity is his political superpower, along with his demagogic genius for tapping into the roiling anger and frustration of a large chunk of the American electorate with classically fascistic rhetoric, violent racist imagery and hate-mongering, coupled with cruelty and dehumanization of immigrants, insufficiently loyal RINO’s, the mainstream media, and his political adversaries. All of this is standard fare for dictators, but Trump has perfected an American version of the blood-and-soil rhetoric of hate and political violence. 

Increasingly, Donald Trump sounds just like Adolf Hitler, often repeating his lines verbatim. He’s called migrants “vermin,” recently saying “they’re not people,” even as he laments the “poisoning of the blood” of America, an phrase straight out of Mein Kampf. He recently said that Jews who vote for Democrats hate themselves and hate Israel. The list goes on from there, as his rhetoric gets more violent and extreme by the day.

He threatened a “bloodbath” were he to lose the upcoming election, even as he celebrates those who attacked the U.S. Capitol in his name, playing songs of convicted rioters, whom he claims are “hostages,” singing at his rallies. Ominously, he seems to be setting the stage for more political violence, praising those who attacked the Capitol as wronged patriots, persecuted like himself, in his view.

But it’s his impunity that is the rosetta stone for comprehending his political movement. It’s his singular ability to worm his way out of consequences that is the most confounding and appalling thing about him and his meteoric political rise. Without this freedom to break norms and laws, Trumpism doesn’t exist. Fundamentally, it’s about impunity, above all for himself.

Obviously, he’s had plenty of help from his many sympathizers and enablers sprinkled throughout the country and beyond, from people who embrace his dark politics in the U.S. Congress, the Senate, the judicial system, the right-wing media, the Kremlin, and the electorate itself. He has no shortage of allies willing to sell their own souls for him, justifying, excusing, explaining away, and rationalizing his lies, violent rhetoric, and unapologetic wrongdoing.

From the time he was caught on a hot mic gleefully discussing sexually assaulting women during his 2016 presidential run (“grab em’ by the pussy”), and Republicans either stayed silent, or said it was just locker-room talk, he’s had a free pass. And his behavior became more and more dangerous as he realized the extent of what he could get away with.

He blew through his first impeachment for trying to blackmail the president of Ukraine for political dirt on Joe Biden, walked on his second impeachment for trying to steal the 2020 election, and might very well escape a mountain of criminal charges and civil liabilities. It seems nothing ever sticks, and perhaps nothing ever will. But all hope isn’t lost.

Trials & tribulations

On the same day the appellate court lowered Trump’s bond amount, Judge Juan Merchan in Manhattan set what appeared to be a firm trial date for the hush money case in New York, set to begin April 15. The trial will be the first criminal prosecution of a former president, and current Republican nominee, in American history. Judge Merchan also set a gag order to prevent Trump from making “threatening, inflammatory, denigrating” statements about jurors, court staff, prosecutors, and lawyers, although that doesn’t include himself or DA Alvin Bragg, whom Trump will be free to castigate. 

But this seems to demonstrate my larger point; out of the four sets of criminal charges, the hush money case brought by Bragg in Manhattan is indisputably the weakest, built on something of a novel legal theory, and relating to conduct that’s trivial in comparison to the other allegations. The case emerged from Trump’s payment of $130,000 to buy the silence of pornstar Stormy Daniels ahead of the 2016 election, regarding what she said was a sexual affair between them years earlier. 

The case relies on key witness testimony from Trump’s former fixer and lawyer, Michael Cohen, who was indicted and eventually pleaded guilty to charges relating to those payments, which he said he made on Trump’s behalf. Trump’s lawyers are already mercilessly attacking Cohen’s credibility, in what will almost certainly be a running theme in the trial. 

Beyond the issue of a problematic witness, the case pales next to the other cases in terms of the seriousness of Trump’s alleged crimes. Compare it to: Trump’s gross mishandling of sensitive and highly classified documents at Mar-a-Lago after the end of his presidency, and then his obstruction of efforts to retrieve those documents; Trump’s well-documented and multi-pronged campaign to overturn his 2020 election loss to Joe Biden, in what was essentially a coup d’etat that culminated in a violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6; or the sprawling RICO case related to those same efforts in the state of Georgia. 

There’s just no comparison.

The hush money case is both the weakest and the flimsiest legally, though a trial in Manhattan would conceivably draw from a jury pool that loathes Trump, despite being in his hometown. Other than a friendly blue jury pool in New York, the case is probably the one Trump’s lawyers would have chosen for themselves, if they had to pick a single jury trial to hold before the election. Unfortunately, it looks like Trump will be going to trial only on that single fragile case before the election, validating his delay strategy, and potentially allowing him to escape prosecution for his assault on our democracy.

All he has to do is beat this one case. It’s very doable.

Incredibly, with only seven months until the election, Trump currently leads President Joe Biden in national polling. If Trump secures an acquittal in a jury trial in the run-up to voting, it could justify his false argument that he’s being hounded in an unfair political witch-hunt, rather than facing righteous prosecutions resulting from his own extensive wrongdoing. The political consequences of a failed prosecution could be catstrophic.

If he prevails at trial, it would give Trump the kind of momentum that could very well carry him to victory in the electoral college, tipping the balance in his favor in what will already be an extraordinarily tight election rematch between himself and President Biden. In an election that’s destined to be decided on a razor’s edge, the room for error is nil.

Thus, it seems like the fate of the country and our democracy might rest on the outcome of this one shaky prosecution, even as our judicial system is already nearly buckling under the political pressure of a presidential nominee who’s also a criminal defendant. With so much at stake, it’s hard to say exactly how this will play out. One thing that’s absolutely certain, though, is that our democracy now faces the fight of its life. 

It’s anyone’s guess if it survives.

Alexander Ziperovich

Alexander Ziperovich is a Political analyst and Opinion columnist. He writes about politics, justice, foreign affairs, and culture, dissecting the larger historical and social context behind important events.

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