Donald Trump and the trap door

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump arrives for a campaign rally Saturday, July 29 in Erie, Pennsylvania. (Sue Ogrocki/AP)
Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump arrives for a campaign rally Saturday, July 29 in Erie, Pennsylvania. (Sue Ogrocki/AP)

Donald Trump’s latest indictment is, without a doubt, the most profound and alarming court case in U.S. history. The charging document compiled by Special Counsel Jack Smith sets out, in meticulous detail, Trump's campaign to subvert the will of the American electorate.

Rendered into plain English: Trump lost the 2020 election. He knew he lost. Rather than conceding, he spread lies, concocted legal scams, issued threats and ultimately, incited a mob of cop-bashing goons to terrorize Congress. He did all this as part of a conspiracy to deny the will of the 81 million voters who had elected Joseph Biden president.

It would be hard to imagine a human being doing more to undermine American democracy.

Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, could argue that his sedition was an effort to represent the rights and values — however despicable — of the Southern states. Trump’s treason was a monument to his own shriveled ego.

When word of the indictment was announced yesterday (at long last), it struck me as the culmination of a psychic pattern I’ve come to think of as the Trap Door Loop. Perhaps you know the pattern. It works like this:

  1. Trump does or says something depraved.
  2. Sensing we’ve reached the moral bottom of conduct in U.S. political life, I expect Republicans to turn on him.
  3. Instead, they defend/deflect/ignore/celebrate his depravity.
  4. Thus a trap door opens to a new, even more sickening bottom.

It would take a thousand pages (or perhaps books) to document every instance in which Trump proved himself unworthy of public service. He boasted about sexual assault, defended White supremacists, fanboyed dictators, tore refugee families apart, spread lethal lies about a pandemic. And so on and so on.

What matters in all this isn’t Trump. He is who is: an unloved coward who converts self-loathing into sadism.

The question that lingers is how many American voters will reach a point where they can no longer rationalize supporting him? What will it take for them to reach a moral bottom with no trap door?

That’s the terrifying paradox that shrouds these new charges. If a president can brazenly seek to undermine a free and fair election, then use that same system to win power again, is America even a democracy anymore?

It’s worth noting here that the first major poll of the 2024 election showed Trump and Biden, the man who defeated him by nearly 8 million votes, in a dead heat. This polling suggests some Republican voters will pull the lever for Trump despite conceding that he is guilty of “serious federal crimes.”

Even after this third, and most damning, indictment, right-wing media outlets and politicians continue to deny the gravity of Trump’s attempted coup by trumpeting legalistic nonsense and childish deflections.

There is an argument to be made that Jack Smith’s indictment, and perhaps the looming indictment in Fulton County, where Trump is likely to be charged for his blatant efforts to interfere in Georgia’s election, will sway some voters.

Perhaps if voters are told the story of Trump’s criminality, some slender but consequential portion of them will feel they’ve reached rock bottom, and refuse to support him.

But it’s just as likely, in my view, that Trump’s perpetual legal battles will serve his campaign, in the same way they have in the past. They allow him to dominate the news, to flaunt his impunity, to play the enraged martyr that his followers worship.

They will also, almost certainly, distract the scandal-mongering press from the very real triumphs of the Biden administration, which has been lowering inflation, rebuilding our infrastructure, keeping the job market hot, goosing our GDP, and cutting prices for prescription drugs — with almost no coverage.

Trump’s criminal indictments have likewise obscured just how awful he was as president. Even if you put aside his flagrant lies and violent rhetoric, his actual performance constitutes its own kind of indictment.

Trump came into office promising to be “the greatest jobs president God ever created.” When he left office, the American workforce had lost nearly 3 million jobs, and the economy was in freefall. His mismanagement of the COVID pandemic had caused hundreds of thousands of American deaths. The trade deficit, which Trump promised to reduce, rocketed by more than 40%. The murder rate rose to the highest level in more than two decades.

Throughout all this blundering, Trump himself remained lazy, self-promoting and disengaged. He watched TV and golfed more than he governed. He spent 168 days on the links, and nearly a third of his term at one of his vacation properties.

We should all hope that Trump will be tried as quickly as possible on these new charges. But the ultimate fate of American democracy will reside in the court of public opinion.

If Trump finds his way back to the Oval Office it won’t be because our justice system failed us. It will be because American citizens have proved angry and gullible and apathetic enough to open one final trap door — the one that leads our nation to the dangerous realms beneath democracy.

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Steve Almond Cognoscenti contributor
Steve Almond’s new book, “Truth Is the Arrow, Mercy Is the Bow” will be out in 2024.



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