Trump's first criminal trial is a test run

Donald Trump Andrew Harnik/Getty Images
Donald Trump Andrew Harnik/Getty Images
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The Age of Trump and the larger democracy crisis are not “just” a huge political problem. They are a moral and ethical crisis as well, a test of our national character. Moreover, these great challenges cannot be remedied in a piecemeal fashion. They are entangled with one another and must be taken on simultaneously if we are to escape the Age of Trump and all its great troubles and pain. Ultimately, the struggle to save American democracy is not like a buffet where you get to pick and choose.

America’s mainstream news media and its pundits have, for the most part, actively avoided the ethical and moral dimensions of the country’s democracy crisis and the Age of Trump.

Why is this?

One of the main reasons is that it is far easier to continue to pretend that these are normal times and to focus on political personalities and polls and “independent and undecided voters” than it is to turn a mirror to questions of character, ethics, and morality. This is part of a much larger failure by the mainstream American news media to ask questions about emotions about politics – especially as they relate to right-wing authoritarian populism and the MAGA movement and the larger global antidemocracy movement. In all, the mainstream news media as an institution has a standard set of conceptual tools and lenses for making sense of the world and American politics. With Donald Trump's political rise, these approaches have proven inadequate. Yet, the mainstream news media still holds onto them tightly. So now the mainstream news media is trying to prepare for how it will continue to function with some veneer of independence (if it even exists in an environment where “freedom of the press” will not be a real thing and Donald Trump, like Adolph Hitler and the Nazis, has deemed the news media to be “enemies of the people”).

As Charles Sykes writes in a new essay at the Atlantic about the American news media’s failures in the Age of Trump, “In our digitally chaotic world, relying on the reporting strategies of the past is like bringing the rules of chess to the Thunderdome":

The former White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer points out a recent example in his newsletter: On a radio show earlier this month, Donald Trump bizarrely suggested that Joe Biden was high on cocaine when he delivered his energetic State of the Union address. It was a startling moment, yet several major national media outlets did not cover the story.

And when Trump called for the execution of General Mark Milley, it didn’t have nearly the explosive effect it should have.

The "Prime Directive of 2024," Sykes writes, is to "never, ever become numbed by the endless drumbeat of outrages.”

There is another reason why the American mainstream media continues to largely avoid questions of morality, ethics and national character in its reporting and commentary on the Age of Trump and our democracy crisis: They do not want to judge the American people and their behavior by assigning moral labels (and therefore moral accountability and moral agency) to those many tens of millions of Trump MAGA voters and the Republicans and “conservatives” who support the campaign to end the country’s multiracial pluralistic democracy.

Tom Nichols is among the few prominent public voices who consistently and bravely intervene against that dominant media narrative by showing how the Age of Trump is a moral and ethical crisis that reflects horribly on the supporters and enablers of the wildly corrupt ex-president and his MAGA movement. In a recent essay at the Atlantic about Donald Trump sharing a video of President Biden hogtied in the back of a pickup truck like an animal that is about to be slaughtered and mounted on the wall, Nichols focuses on the questions of morality, character and personal responsibility:

After seeing Trump post this video, I found myself wanting to ask his voters the questions that always occur after one of his outrages: Is this okay with you? Is this something you’d want your children to see?


Such thoughts are unpleasant—in part because of how many millions of Americans, including people we may know and care about, have repeatedly voted for Trump. But at some point, we have to decide when to levy a moral judgment that puts these choices beyond the realm of a normal political argument.

Unfortunately, we’re not getting much help in making those determinations from some of the media. On Sunday morning, for example, Kristen Welker of Meet the Press noted that Trump had “stepped up his attacks on the judge and his family in the New York hush money case” and is “falsely calling the criminal proceedings ‘election interference.’” Her verdict: “It is yet another reminder that we are covering this election against the backdrop of a deeply divided nation.”

Well, sure, that’s one way to put it. More accurately, however, we might say that a mostly coherent and decent nation is under electoral assault from a violent seditionist minority that has captured one of our two national parties, and its leader encourages and condones threats against officials at every level across the country, including threats of violence against the sitting president of the United States.

Every ardent Trump supporter should be asked when enough’s enough. And every elected Republican, including the sad lot now abasing themselves for a spot on Trump’s ticket or in his possible Cabinet, should be asked when they will risk their careers for the sake of the country, if not their souls. We have reached an important moment—one of many over the past years, if we are to be honest. After all we have learned and seen, and all of the questions we might ask of Trump supporters, perhaps only one simple and direct question truly matters now:

Is this who you are?

In a subsequent essay, Nichols explains that Trump’s attacks on reality, democratic political norms and human decency are part of a coordinated strategy to exhaust the American people. The goal: Dictator Trump and his authoritarian movement will be able to take power and then rule over a morally compromised and complicit public.

In an excellent essay at The New Republic, Brynn Tannehill tells an uncomfortable truth, one that cuts to the heart of the comforting and self-soothing assumptions made by too many in the American news media and political class (and general public) about the inherent goodness and fundamental decency of the American people – even those Americans who support the MAGA movement and the larger right-wing authoritarian populist movement:

There are two types of news articles that, whether they intend to or not, always end up painting Donald Trump’s supporters in a sympathetic light. One type of story usually points to “economic anxiety” as a reason why “average Americans” would support someone as awful as Trump (despite all the data proving this isn’t true).

Another tends to describe his supporters as regular people who have fallen down a rabbit hole of kooky ideas and conspiracy theories peddled by malign actors.  One notable recent example of this was written by McKay Coppins for The Atlantic, who urged readers to go to a Trump rally to see what MAGA looks like today.

Both genres, interestingly, show the people as passive vessels being acted upon. They fail to give agency to the people supporting a man who openly promises a dictatorship: a man who vows, “I am your retribution.”

Tannehill continues, offering this lesson from one of the darkest eras in human history:

Thus the important takeaway from these articles is not relief that Trump has gotten stale. It confirms the other evidence that there is a strong, underlying desire for an authoritarian fascist to rule the country and that even those who aren’t true believers would simply go along with it, or disbelieve it altogether. These perfectly nice, ordinary, generous, pleasant people are no different from any German in 1933–1945.

[Hannah] Arendt also noted how part of the allure of fascism is its invitation to “throw off the mask of hypocrisy.” Trump was merely the invitation. He was an outlet for an unspoken desire to seize control and remake the nation, hurting the people who needed it along the way.  One of my takeaways from these articles highlighting bored rallygoers is: Many of the people in the front row aren’t fired-up true believers. They are there for the ideology and the outcome, not for the man. They’re OK with the fascism, even if the schtick got old. In the end, the worst movements are always quietly enabled by otherwise ordinary men.

In a very provocative essay at the Daily Beast, Michael Ian Black views Donald Trump and “MAGA” as a painful lesson and opportunity for the American people and their leaders to do better. As Black compellingly argues, the Trumpocene and its gross pathologies, both collective and personal, have forced the mask, clothing, and other accouterments to drop away, thus revealing the vast ugliness beneath it all:

For almost a decade now, people who know better have excused Trump’s venom to protect themselves.

So, thank you, Donald, for showing me what cowardice actually looks like.

Thank you, Donald, for proving the old adage about suckers and the frequency of their birth rate.

Thank you, Donald, for neatly illustrating LBJ’s maxim that “if you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket.” Thank you, Donald, for further illustrating the lesser-known, second half of that quote: “He’ll even empty his pockets for you.”

Thank you, Donald Trump for using the American flag as a mirror. You’ve shown us who we are.

After all this gratitude, my question is the following: what did we do to deserve you?

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The first of Donald Trump’s four criminal trials began this week in Manhattan. Unfortunately, Trump's obvious criminality has not broken his power over his MAGA followers and other supporters. It is true that some Republicans and “conservatives” are telling pollsters that they are less likely to support Trump if he is convicted of a crime. Given the levels of polarization and how political parties are now a form of personal identity for many Americans – especially Republicans and conservatives – I am deeply suspicious of such claims.

Of course, Donald Trump’s most loyal MAGA cultists and others who are compelled towards the Trump personality cult have not been deterred by his wanton lawbreaking and instead are attracted to him more because of it.

Those Americans who exist outside of the MAGAverse and the right-wing echo chamber and look on, vexed and confused, still in a years-long state of denial, at how such an evil man can be loved by so many.

Trump’s four trials are a type of crucible for the truth. They are also a space where the rule of law, morality, basic norms of right and wrong, and justice are tested. What has the Age of Trump done to the American people and our national character? We will find out on Election Day at the ballot box.