A Turning Point In America’s Cold Civil War … If We’re Lucky

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 30: Former U.S. President Donald Trump arrives to Trump Tower on May 30, 2024 in New York City. (Photo by James Devaney/GC Images)
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This is special edition of TPM’s Morning Memo focused exclusively on the criminal conviction of the 45th president of the United States. Sign up for the email version.

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Nearly a decade into the Trump era, he finally has a comeuppance worthy of the historical moment: a felony conviction on all 34 counts by a state jury sitting in Manhattan, the locus of his life and business career.

It took way too long. It doesn’t excuse or expunge all the previous failures to hold him to account. His conviction was on matters peripheral to his disastrous presidency. It doesn’t remove the threat of his re-election.

But it was a glimpse of what it looks like to uphold the rule of law, to stand up to a bullying wannabe dictator, to hold firm and do your job when madness is swirling all around.

We have certain expectations of the stories we tell ourselves, ingrained from millennia of storytelling around countless communal fires. Chief among them is that eventually there will be justice done to bad people who do bad things. We’ve constructed entire theologies around this notion. If justice is not done here on earth, don’t fret, god will exact eternal justice.

It is core to who we are and what we believe, and Trump’s fierce resistance to that narrative arc has shaken many of us to the core. I can’t begin to count the thousands of reader emails and comments from the past decade that boil down to despair that the Trump story is seemingly immune to the usual patterns we have come to expect: What can be done? Who is going to do it? Why hasn’t it been done already? And the what ifs … an endless string of what ifs. What if so and so did such and such? What if this clever tactic or that new strategy were to be deployed? Why hasn’t anyone thought to do this or that or some other thing.

We grasp for anything that will make the story turn out the way that we expect it to. We need Trump’s grand undoing because we anticipate that it will give some shape or meaning to this decade-long disaster that has cost the lives of so many people — in pandemic-burdened hospitals, on the Ukraine steppe, and under the unfolding threat of runaway climate change. As the years have passed and time taken its toll, it’s become grimly apparent that the expectation that justice will win out in the end is a luxury only available to the living.

The opportunity costs of the Trump era are so staggering that sometimes they almost bring me to my knees. It’s not the fight for the rule of law, or for a peaceful world order, or to protect longstanding institutions and norms that discourages me. Those are worth fighting for. It’s what we would have been fighting for instead, the battles we never got a chance to fight, the reforms that have been back-burnered for a decade, the lost ground on so many issue fronts. That’s what sobers me.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the past decade thinking about not just what might have been had we taken a different fork in the road in 2000 or 2016 — but about what it means to have the life’s work that so many of us anticipated doing taken away from us and to be thrust into fights we didn’t want and don’t savor. We don’t always get to pick our fights; they sometimes pick us.

In the great historical conflicts we grow up learning about, the heroes are those who rise to the occasion in that moment in time, their destiny seemingly preordained, their glory coming for having bent the narrative arc back toward justice. But the notion that they neither wanted that destiny nor asked for it — and that they probably had another destiny in mind for themselves, and that that destiny was forever lost to them — is startling and new to me. It was how I had always thought about the victims of past tragedies, but I had never really applied it to the heroes.

We had a chance to stand on the firm if imperfect foundation we had spent two hundreds years building and refining to do more great things, to help more people in more ways, to continue to level the playing field, to expand the good things we do and minimize the bad, to try to arrest our self-inflicted climate catastrophe. But instead we looked down and discovered a real estate barker turned reality TV star had formed a cult of the disagreeable under the banner of the Republican Party, handed out pickaxes and chisels, and had proceeded en masse to begin manically chipping away at that foundation.

Not everyone saw it right away. Not everyone wanted to see it. Many still don’t see it. But in the hours since the verdict in New York City, it’s been made clear again, if there were any doubt, that they will not stop their attack. I expect you’ll see it reengaged in its fiercest form at Trump’s press conference scheduled for 11 a.m. ET. The rule of law, democracy, justice, freedom itself remain deeply in peril. Just as much as we yearn for the story to turn out the way we were raised to expect it to, they must feverishly tear it all down to keep the narrative arc from bending back toward justice.

Trump’s conviction was a battle won. The war rages on. It’s not clear yet who will win out in the end.

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