Trump derangement syndrome has evolved into Trump wake-me-when-it’s-over syndrome. To briefly recap: a man facing four felony trials during his campaign, and two civil trials, one for fraud and one for rape, is the overwhelming favourite to win his party’s nomination for president — more secure in the race for his party’s nomination than any candidate in modern memory. Then, in the general election, with a field of two, he has a 50 per cent chance of winning the presidency. Or, to put it in more precise dramatic terms, his existential plight is to spend the rest of his life in prison or to become president and take his revenge on those who sought to slay him. The system destroys him or he destroys it.
This is so large that of course people turn away from it. It’s like global warming. Minds formed by generations of the wonkiness and policy disputes of American politics can’t process the big bang. All the expenditure of angst and rage about Trump that took place before this ultimate showdown makes everything now seem like an anti-climax. When you strike the king, you must kill him. Democrats went for Trump with a special counsel and a years-long investigation over his Russian connections, and then, when that failed, two impeachments and Senate trials — and yet he is stronger than ever. It’s not just a sense of failure and embarrassment and incomprehension on the part of Democrats, but of one season too many in a dramatic series.
And yet, despite their failures, the confident conviction of Democrats, no different from the earliest days of his presidency, remains that they will surely get him this time. He is, after all, transparently a liar and a crook — and therefore a sitting duck. And by that logic, the same logic with which the Democrats have soothed themselves since his declaration for the presidency in 2015, he is going down. If those prior attempts, with all their muscle and bluster, failed, well, now, here are four criminal trials. No presidential candidate in history has ever faced even one criminal trial — he’s up against four. Get out of that!
Despite their failures, the conviction of Democrats is still no different — they will surely get him this time
The consistent thread on the part of Democrats, beyond apoplexy, is that Trump is an albatross and anomaly. He is not part of the process, nor really even of linear history, but an insult to it, and that he can be excised from it. While his existence has filled Democrats with the highest umbrage, they have believed too that this will pass — must pass, dammit. So wake me up when it does. They have therefore ably resisted the otherwise obvious conclusion that Trump might mean a profound transformation in the nature of politics itself, its language, its values, its pretences, and the very people who populate it. Their denial precludes the distinct possibility that he could get away with it. That he might even be convicted and get away with it. That he might, in fact, be too big to fall.
“In my decades of covering national politics,” wrote Michelle Cottle, one of the New York Times’ senior political analysts, not long ago, “I’ve seen a lot of weird, unsettling stuff. But nothing has been weirder and more unsettling than Donald Trump’s enduring grip on the American electorate. Even now, eight years in, I some time find myself shaking my head in wonder: For the love of God, why?”
You might think a New York Times reader would expect somewhat more insight about the most singular political development of our time, particularly after years of contemplation, but this is a fairly representative level of commentary from both pundit class and dinner party circuit: How? Why? Weird.
Trump is polling almost 50 points ahead of his nearest Republican opponent. In Iowa, the first primary where a win will irrefutably smash all opposition to him, he is running only 24 points ahead — which a desperate New York Times recently singled out as a possibly less than completely gloomy development. And yet, his still-likely-insurmountable margin there comes even after dissing Iowa’s incredibly popular Republican Governor Kim Reynolds, as well as the state’s must-carry evangelical base. Cross every political line and he still trounces everybody. (Oh yes, and the Washington Post in its poll is now putting Trump ahead of Joe Biden by 10 points).
Trump owns at least half of America, and the Trump opposition, exhausted, has no viable plan to buy it back
The hopeful political thesis among anybody-is-better-than-Trump America has been that a great number of Republicans wanted Trumpism — a mostly ordinary collection of conservative positions — rather than gross-and-rude Trump himself. This was the basis for the Trump-lite candidacy of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, heavily supported by Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News. But DeSantis barely got off the starting block. Trumpism, it turned out, doesn’t hold a candle to Trump.
Trump owns at least half of America, and the Trump opposition, exhausted and perplexed, has no viable plan to buy it back.
But it doesn’t matter because Trump is going to jail. Done deal. Right?
Justice appears blind to the implications of how much these prosecutions have super-charged his campaign. There’s great relief and sang froid that Trump’s fate will be different in a courtroom than on the political stage, unmindful that we’re now talking the political trials of the century. This is OJ kind of stuff. Every day for Trump is a white Bronco day. All eyes riveted on him. What likely happens? An orderly process of adjudication and justice or a show trial? Except it won’t be the judicial system running the show.
And what if he is convicted? And what if this does not, as we depend on convictions to do, cast him as bad guy and loser, but once more as avenging hero? Or, what if, as is probably likely, he is acquitted in one or more trials and convicted in others? How does that add up? And what if whatever happens at his trials fuels the fire and fury that elects him again? How does a repudiated judicial system recover from that? Or if, when he loses the election, his prosecution becomes the casus belli for this loss? Yes, another violently disputed election.
None of this is a prescription for what to do or how to handle, but rather to note that anti-Trump denial has so far done nothing to dim his presence and power in American life.
Anyway, whatever sleep is going on among the weary and still-uncomprehending, America is on fire. It will be an inferno by next summer.
Michael Wolff is the author of Fire and Fury and The Fall: The End of the Murdoch Empire