In the weeks before he took office as president, Donald Trump had a portentous, private chat with the broadcast journalist Lesley Stahl, a prelude to a 60 Minutes interview. As Stahl recounted later, she asked Trump why he so relentlessly brutalized the media. His answer, she said, was strikingly direct: “You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so that when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you.’”
This is, of course, the thinking of an authoritarian. If you can successfully cast doubt on facts and the people whose mission it is to report them, you have tremendous latitude to set your own narrative and do as you please. Over time, Trump has worked to discredit and demean any institution that raises inconvenient truths or seeks to hold him accountable for his actions—not just the media, but law enforcement and the election system itself.
His latest target is the special counsel’s office. Yesterday, Trump announced his own indictment on a variety of charges surrounding his mishandling of classified documents. And, as has now become a familiar mantra in the face of investigations, impeachments, indictments, and legal setbacks, he loudly proclaimed himself the victim of his political enemies and a corrupt system, intent on sidelining him and his movement.
The details and scope of the indictment, unsealed today, are extensive and damning. The 49-page filing alleges that among the documents Trump took from the White House were highly sensitive materials relating to national security. The indictment catalogs Trump’s recklessness in storing these documents, and his bald-faced scheming to avoid surrendering them to authorities.
Prosecutors could hardly turn away from the evidence of wrongdoing. But will it be enough to do what past scandals have not—cool the ardor of Trump’s devoted base? As remarkable as the charges in this indictment are, anyone who predicts with confidence that this will diminish Trump’s standing with his supporters has a short memory. Throughout his career, he has survived scandals that would have leveled other politicians.
Trump’s diabolical genius for selling his alternative reality cannot be denied. There is no more powerful testimony to the efficacy of his shameless guile than the fact that a twice-impeached, now twice-indicted (with more cases pending), certified and boastful sexual predator who propagated blatant lies about an election he lost and provoked a violent insurrection against the government is, nonetheless, the current front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination.
A master at imposing his narrative, Trump has made his ignominy work for him in the GOP primary race so far, doubling his lead over his nearest competitor, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, in recent months. Notably, Trump’s lead in the polls grew even after his indictment by a New York City grand jury in April, related to the alleged payment of hush money to the adult-film actor Stormy Daniels, and after he was found liable for damages for sexually assaulting and defaming the columnist E. Jean Carroll.
True to the revelatory comments he made to Stahl, Trump has created a frame by which anything negative said about him—even if it comes in a court of law—is the equivalent of “fake news,” malicious lies told to try to thwart him. In his telling, Trump is the avenging angel, battling a corrupt “deep state” and a rigged system on behalf of aggrieved citizens.
“I AM AN INNOCENT MAN,” Trump declared on his Truth Social site last night, in his signature DEFCON 1, all-caps mode minutes after announcing his indictment. “THE BIDEN ADMINISTRATION IS TOTALLY CORRUPT. THIS IS ELECTION INTERFERENCE & A CONTINUATION OF THE GREATEST WITCH HUNT OF ALL TIME.”
Alluding to the fact that President Joe Biden himself is under a special-counsel probe for his own mishandling of documents from his days as vice president, Trump accused prosecutors of a malign and egregious double standard. (What Trump left out was that the details of these two cases appear to differ in several ways, starting with the fact that Biden voluntarily surrendered the documents in his possession while Trump did not.)
One day after the Carroll case was decided, Trump was similarly defiant. In a CNN town-hall interview, he blamed the unanimous jury verdict on the presiding federal judge, who, he noted with heavy inference, was “Clinton-appointed.” In the same televised event, Trump continued to insist that the 2020 presidential election had been “rigged,” even though numerous federal judges whom he had appointed had summarily dismissed his fraud claims for lack of evidence. Logistical consistency is not a virtue in Trump’s world; stubborn insistence on his version of reality is.
Up until now, Trump’s sophistry has proved effective. Two-thirds of Republicans continue to embrace his election lie, and a large majority of Republicans believe his claim that the charges brought against him by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg in the hush-money case were politically motivated—a message eagerly amplified by House Republicans and right-wing media.
No signs emerged in the hours after the new indictment that this support would waiver. House Republican leaders and even DeSantis—Trump’s chief rival for the Republican nomination—once again rallied to his defense. “It’s unconscionable for a President to indict the leading candidate opposing him,” House Speaker Kevin McCarthy wrote on Twitter, echoing Trump’s conspiratorial claim that Biden had orchestrated the indictment to silence him. “I, and every American who believes in the rule of law, stand with President Trump against this grave injustice.” DeSantis stoutly decried what he called the “weaponization of federal law enforcement.”
Many establishment Republicans, including backers of DeSantis, are still hopeful that Trump’s mounting legal woes will erode his dominance in public polling. They seem to believe that enough of the party’s voters, 80 percent of whom still give Trump a favorable rating, will sober up and buy into the argument that the embattled former president would be a liability as the nominee in 2024 and a loser in the race to unseat Biden. The stunning details of the new indictment might put that theory to the test.
Yet we have seen that kind of magical thinking ever since Trump descended the golden escalator at his eponymous tower in 2015 to upend American politics. How often since then have so many misjudged this serial and brazen flouter of rules, laws, and norms? How often have we said, “Well, he’ll never get away with that”?
Trump has survived until now because, to many of his supporters, his flamboyant defiance and the trail of controversies and allegations that follow him are less a cause for concern than an emblem of authenticity. The scorn of elites and myriad investigations to which he has been subjected are, for his faithful, merely certifications of his potency and independence, a reflection of the threat he poses to a corrupt order.
Maybe in the coming months, the sizable bricks that are piling up will prove too much for Trump’s load to bear. Eventually, during or after this campaign, he presumably will have to reckon with truth and facts and 12 voters in a jury box, in settings in which he won’t get to make or flout the rules. Trump’s appeal to a Republican base that feels culturally besieged is rooted in his indomitability. If that aura crumbles, his appeal might, too.
But for now, it is at least an even bet that the World According to Trump will continue to hold power in the Republican nominating contest.
Source: The Atlantic
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