Donald J. Trump was indicted in Manhattan last week for his role in paying hush money to a porn star. In coming days, prosecutors in the office of the Manhattan district will likely ask Trump to surrender and to face arraignment.
What’s the real significance of this? What will it mean?
Last Saturday, at the first rally of his presidential campaign, in Waco, Texas, Trump talked about the criminal cases being prepared against him as if they were being prepared against his supporters.
“They’re not coming after me, they’re coming after you,” he said, predicting that “you will be vindicated and proud.”
The wording was no accident. To Trump, there is no difference between himself and his supporters, and no difference between his supporters and the parts of the United States where they’re the majority.
This is key. Trump views himself, his supporters (whom he calls “my people”), and their domains as one and the same. Anyone who opposes him is “them” — outside the universe of his identity, past the places that embrace him, beyond the borders of his pathological ego.
Trump’s fusion of himself with his supporters galvanizes those who project onto him the power and status they feel they’ve lost in America — people who are mostly white, rural, and without college degrees.
But Trump is not engaging in this fusion as a means of being reelected president. In fact, even if it helps him win the Republican nomination, it will lose him the general election, because it will turn off all Republicans who are focused on real issues or who worry that he’s nuts, and it will cause independents to flee.
The dirty little secret of Trump’s third campaign for president — one that the media has so far ignored — is that he is not seeking to become president of the United States, at least not the United States as it is now organized. He is seeking to become president of a very different nation — overwhelmingly white, straight, Christian, and authoritarian.
The policies Trump promoted in his speech are designed to change America into that nation — featuring, for example, the “largest mass deportation in United States history,” along with efforts to reverse “declining fertility rates” (white-nationalist code for encouraging white couples to have more babies).
Trump will use today’s indictment to galvanize his supporters even further.
At his rally last Saturday, Trump claimed that the greatest threat to the United States was “not China or Russia” but the people in the “Department of ‘Injustice,’” and “high-level politicians that work in the U.S. government, like McConnell, Pelosi, Schumer, and Biden.”
When he was president, Trump expressed admiration for Putin and Xi. Presumably, the reason he admires them is that both have fused their personal identities with the identities of their countries (and along the way eliminated all opposition). The greatest threats to Trump’s attempt to accomplish the same in the United States are his domestic opponents, along with Republicans (like Mitch McConnell) who fail to give him full-throttled support.
Similarly, when he spoke last Saturday of “demonic forces” trying to demolish America, he was referring to demonic forces trying to demolish him — and, by implication, his supporters and their America.
For Trump, every major challenge facing America is a major challenge to Trump, and vice versa.
Last Saturday, he called the “weaponization of our justice system” the “central issue of our time.” During last year’s midterms, he tried to make his lies about fraud in his 2020 election defeat the most pressing issue facing the nation.
In his mind, the two are linked. He is now recasting the January 6 attack on the Capitol as an act of patriotism by those who view the 2020 election as illegitimate. The Waco rally even featured singing by men who were imprisoned for their part in the attack. A massive screen flashed images of the January 6 attack while Trump recited the Pledge of Allegiance.
He still has not accepted the result of the 2020 election, because it was the product of people who voted against him, and Trump never considered himself president of people who reject him. Following the same sociopathic logic, he will not accept the result of the 2024 election if he is not elected. His mind is incapable of accepting it. The fusion of himself, his followers, and America renders such an outcome impossible, just as the 2020 outcome was impossible.
Yet in fact he will not be elected — unless the U.S. economy is by then in a deep recession, or Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, has a serious health problem.
Brace yourselves. We have been here before. It culminated on January 6, 2021. The angry, xenophobic, misogynistic, racist, antisemitic, conspiratorial forces Trump unleashed then are still very much with us. And they are now more entrenched in Congress and state legislatures than they were then. By November 2024, they will be ready for a second attempted coup.
Trump wants and expects a civil war over himself, a final clash between Americans who love him and Americans who loathe him — between his egomaniacal views of good and evil. A civil war is unlikely, but the next year and a half is likely to be fraught — another stress test of American democracy.
Last Saturday was only Trump’s first campaign rally. It will not go up from here.