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What Trump Requires

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May 31, 2024 11:00 a.m.
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 30: Former U.S. President Donald Trump walks to speak to the media after being found guilty following his hush money trial at Manhattan Criminal Court on May 30, 2024 in New York City. The ... NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 30: Former U.S. President Donald Trump walks to speak to the media after being found guilty following his hush money trial at Manhattan Criminal Court on May 30, 2024 in New York City. The former president was found guilty on all 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in the first of his criminal cases to go to trial. Trump has now become the first former U.S. president to be convicted of felony crimes. (Photo by Steven Hirsch-Pool/Getty Images) MORE LESS

The Donald Trump we saw yesterday after his 34 felony convictions was angry, defiant but also visibly shaken, unsteady. His face and his hair and his comportment had that look I remember from childhood when I or other schoolboys would have the wind knocked out of them on the soccer field. We’ll see another version of him this morning in a press conference where he will no doubt expand his protestation of innocence and demand for vengeance. The spectacle is a reminder of and object lesson in what Donald Trump demands of his supporters and the country generally.

We have had a criminal justice system in this country for centuries which is commonly if not always uncritically embraced as one of the foundations of American democracy and freedom. It has roots in the English common law system stretching back almost a millennium. Trial by jury is at its heart. It’s no surprise Trump proclaimed his innocence. He of course attacked the prosecutor, the judge, the cases itself. The case was unfair, a disgrace, yada and also yada and yet again more yadas. But there was something both more particular and general that we heard yesterday from Trump and even more from all the elected officials and MAGA influencers who rushed to his defense: that the entire criminal justice system is a joke. A prosecutor can not only indict a ham sandwich. He can convict one too. The whole system is rigged. Not just Donald Trump’s trial — every trial.

In other words, you can choose Trump or the criminal justice system itself. And for Trump’s high-profile supporters that’s an easy one: Trump. Look at the statements you see today. They’re not only saying he’s innocent or that this prosecution was somehow unfair. They repeatedly say that the fact he was rapidly convicted unanimously and on every count by a jury that his lawyers and the prosecutors jointly chose is meaningless. It’s how Trump has always been a norms, standards and law breaker. The nature of his hold over his core supporters is that if Trump does it, it must be okay. The best example of this is the hapless Senate candidate Larry Hogan, who meekly called on the public to respect the jury verdict; Trump’s campaign manager immediately responded publicly that Hogan’s campaign is “over.” If Trump comes into conflict with the criminal justice system it must be the criminal justice system that’s the problem. That is what he requires of his supporters and that’s what they give him.

There’s an additional point, however, which I’d recommend to everyone: I would not for a moment take this blitzkrieg of rage from Trump influencers and stakeholders at face value. I suspect that after a bit of wobbling, by and large, Trump supporters will decide that Trump is more reliable and important than the justice system. But I’m not certain of that and neither are Turmp’s mouthpieces. You can tell that by the intensity of their screaming. This isn’t some peristaltic outpouring of rage and anger. It’s whipping. It’s an overwhelming effort to match and muffle the earthquake of what happened yesterday afternoon with enough noise and choreography to keep everyone in Trump’s campaign and on the margins of it in line and on side.

They’ll probably, at least mostly, manage that. But they have no idea what most voters or even most of their own voters think of this. The intensity of the screaming is directly proportional to the intensity of fear and danger they feel over what happened. To imagine otherwise is to fall for yet another Trump con.

Addendum: There’s one additional point to note here. Dictators can’t brook any opposition. Because the nature of dictatorial control is its pervasiveness and uniformity. There’s no point or logic to declaring your opposition, because everyone would be against you. Once that ceases to be the case, once potential opponents or dissenters are not totally alone, the dictator’s power can become unstable and break down quickly, unpredictably.

Trump is no dictator today. But he’s certainly the dictator of his political movement or party. So similar dynamics apply. We saw that with Hogan. Trump can’t really afford to crap on Hogan. Hogan may be in the Senate majority. He’s also running in what is, in swing-state partisan terms, a Democratic backwater. But the virulent attack on him was immediate and total. That signals an accurate fear of the brittleness of Trump’s power in the face of this kind of assault. So it has to be shot down resolutely, immediately and totally. What we’re seeing isn’t a ferocious backlash, as most of the press is claiming. It’s a quite concerted effort to make sure no one steps out of line. It’s an effort to avoid the far greater risk that a pall of demoralization settles over some of Trump’s least committed, fairweather voters and on-the-fence possibles. In a close race those can make the difference.

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