the body politic

The Dangerous Fantasy of Trump’s Indictment

Why the circus surrounding his arrest may do more harm than good.

Photo: Andres Kudacki
Photo: Andres Kudacki

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When Donald Trump was charged with 34 felony counts for falsifying business records — the legal fallout from the alleged 2016 bribe payment to Stormy Daniels to stay quiet about their affair — and descended on lower Manhattan like a perfectly toasted Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, I remembered how I felt the day that Harvey Weinstein was convicted of assault by a jury in 2020. I was meeting a friend for lunch and saw two women embracing in celebration on the street in Tribeca, a neighborhood Weinstein used to dominate, where he had once berated me and assaulted my colleague. My friend greeted me with jubilation: Have you heard?! I had. And I felt nothing. No pleasure; no sense of justice served.

Millions of my compatriots are now embracing one another with similar jubilation, preparing to cheer the once (and would-be future) president meets some aspect of his legal fate. Maybe, as Amanda Marcotte wrote for Salon, it’s “poetic justice” that Daniels and E. Jean Carroll, who is suing Trump for defamation over his rebuttal of her allegations that he raped her in the 1990s, will be the “first in line to start holding him accountable.” Or maybe, in a world that too rarely takes assault claims seriously and that certainly didn’t before Trump was elected president, it’s a giveaway that District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s indictment is more Hail Mary than solid case. Maybe the fervid cable-news coverage of this penny-theater arrest is appropriate — it’s the first time a former president has ever faced criminal indictment — or maybe it’s playing into this maleficent showman’s whims. Maybe the Schadenfreude of those tweeting celebratory memes under hashtags like #indictmentday is earned, or maybe the spectacle of his arraignment was a hollow display, disconnected from the harm inflicted by this man and his cronies.

Whatever the case, I cannot share the pleasures of Trump’s arrest. More than that, I am alarmed by it.

It’s not that I don’t get it. Trust me, I hate Donald Trump. I covered Hillary Clinton in 2016; as many of her detractors remind me regularly, I believed her candidacy crucial, her prospects urgent. Trump was both my nightmare and my waking misery — a buffoon, yes, but one who could leverage the nation’s oldest and cruelest resentments about race and gender into a suffocating grip on its courts and democratic systems.

After he won the election, I came to see the fixation on Trump as a distraction from the significance and impact of his presidency. In making him a singular fixture at the center of a nonstop carnival, in regarding him as a sui generis horror who might be impeached or prosecuted, but failing to treat him as an embodiment of the broader grotesqueries of the hard right’s drive to power, we were failing the country, each other, and the next generation.

The punitive furies Trump unleashed are ongoing. The institutional, anti-democratic breakdown that ushered in his rise — particularly, the capitulation of the Republican Party to its basest elements and a minority stranglehold — has only gathered pace. Trump was arrested, but that will have no impact on those being denied gender-affirming and reproductive-health care or the children and teachers who risk getting shot at schools. It will not reverse the banning of books about racism or sex education, nor will it stop the cases heading to the court system his party captured and perverted, cases that will mean further environmental, racist, and sexist calamity. Trump may appall and enrage and mesmerize, but Trumpism still seems very easy to accept and ignore because it is not a force that can be dispatched via a simple perp walk. The work of uprooting and fighting it is far more daunting.

I realize that lots of people who are celebrating Trump’s indictment believe that it is possible to have both feelings at once: pleasure at justice being served and trepidation that we remain in crisis. I understand the argument that those who have done wrong must be held accountable. But this isn’t accountability for any of what Trump or his party really did, and continue to do, to this country. And I frankly can’t shake the suspicion that the fixation on Trump’s legal predicament rests on a self-flattering fallacy: that his election was an aberration, an invitation to an elite party that got misdirected to a tacky criminal. That this great country would never would have invited such a brute into its institutions.

We do invite such brutes — have often invited them! Those brutes have relied on the Electoral College and the Supreme Court to override majorities of American voters; they denied a sitting president his choice of justice. They refuse Medicaid expansion in favor of massive tax cuts for the wealthy; they pull parents from their children at the border and in courtrooms that never get the attention of Trump’s arraignment; they have empowered bounty hunters and snitches to turn in those who seek abortions and perform in drag. They arm mobs and incite them to treasonous violence. Now, after Trump’s presidency, I watch with horror as other brutes get flatteringly cast in contrast to him — as if Brian Kemp and Ron DeSantis would not do more harm than the one guy next to whom they are (dishonestly) made to appear respectable and reasonable.

The obsessive impulse to make everything about Trump is a failure to see what made him. The media’s giddiness over his indictment echoes the glee with which it covered his original campaign, with shots of an empty plane waiting to take off for New York standing in for shots of an empty podium. Facebook feeds are once again full of Trump jokes and memes, as if the horror of this period could somehow satisfyingly end with a punch line or wicked diss. All of it feels like a futile effort to correct the imagined aberration, as if by “getting him,” his presence as our former president could be annulled — as if none of it ever really happened.

It did happen. It was not a fluke. And its effects will be with us long after the motorcade and the appearance at court and the other ghoulish televised payoffs that greeted us upon his arrest. He was not the beginning, and he was never going to be the end of what people understand him to represent.

In the same week that Trump was arraigned, Wisconsin voters overwhelmingly chose liberal State Supreme Court justice Janet Protasiewicz, who will be able to reverse that state’s abortion ban and perhaps undo its gerrymandered electoral distortions — but the narrow win of Republican state senator Dan Knodl, who has said he would consider impeaching her, shows the right’s willingness to override the will of voters. Thousands of children in Tennessee have poured out of classrooms since the mass shooting at the Covenant School in late March, demanding stronger gun laws, and in turn several democratically elected lawmakers who stood in support of the students’ protest have been stripped of their committee assignments by Republican opponents. In Florida, the state senate’s minority leader, Lauren Book, forcefully spoke against the passage of a six-week abortion ban that was just passed in that state and was later arrested for protesting peacefully.

The battle for this democracy is raging, and it is dire. But it is not being fought at 100 Centre Street. And the false promise that one savage apparatus, the criminal-justice system, might repair the damage wrought by so many others only recalled for me the emptiness I felt at Weinstein’s conviction.

I guess I am just terrified. Terrified that in celebrating the capture of individual monsters, we permit ourselves — to our grave and lasting harm — to believe that our nightmares might be over.

The Dangerous Fantasy of Trump’s Indictment