I don’t care if Donald Trump once had the ability to launch nuclear weapons; the story is still “Queens Man Arrested.”
The twice-impeached former president of the United States, who incited a mob to overthrow the government he headed, was arraigned today in a courthouse in lower Manhattan. He is accused of committing 34 felony charges, related, as per the indictment, to “falsified New York business records to conceal criminal conduct that hid damaging information from the voting public during the 2016 presidential election.”
In most other countries, fallen leaders end up in the dock for war crimes, the disappearance and murder of political opponents, or attempted or accomplished coups rather like the one Trump fomented two years ago. Yet America’s first criminally charged ex-president was placed under arrest first and foremost because of hush money he paid a porn star to keep her mouth shut to The National Enquirer about having sex with him.
Leave it to the protagonist of “Buttman at Nudes a Poppin’ 14” to have the profoundest take of the event she herself set in motion. “It’s vindication,” Stormy Daniels told The Times of London last week. “But it’s bittersweet. He’s done so much worse that he should have been taken down [for] before. I am fully aware of the insanity of it being a porn star. But it’s also poetic; this pussy grabbed back.”
Stormy is right about the poetry, even if it’s more Bukowski than Whitman.
As I write, our newspapers are awash with editorials and analysis straining to grapple with the enormity of this unprecedented moment in history. Is it a reckoning? A national tragedy? The shattering of a long-held taboo in the world’s most powerful, suddenly quite fragile, democracy? Liberals are asking if Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg has miscalculated by filing these charges before more serious ones come down the pike, such as those related to Trump’s attempt to conjure nonexistent votes for himself in Georgia after the last election. Conservatives, meanwhile, think Bragg is a Soros-financed Marxist overreaching on what would otherwise be misdemeanor offenses for which Trump should never have been brought to book and indeed wasn’t under Bragg’s predecessor.
Lost in the air of forced solemnity on this occasion is the simple fact that this indictment represents the apotheosis of the lowlife in American politics, a process that arguably got underway before the tanning bed Babbitt descended his gilt escalator on Fifth Avenue in 2016, but which now looks irreversible.
Great American political scandals used to summon a measure of pathos, if not Shakespearean drama. Nixon’s vindictiveness and paranoia were at least moored to a genuine form of class resentment and hatred for the old-guard establishment — not the spoofed imitation of resentment peddled by a frozen fish stick heir on Fox News, who holds his own audience in contempt, according to civil court filings. Clinton’s impeachment saga managed to transcend an intern’s blowjob and foreground the question of presidential truthfulness. How quaint that looks in the rearview mirror.
Today’s grifters, crooks and fantasy merchants are catchpenny vaudevillians by comparison. They are sweaty ex-mayors with shoe polish running down their faces, mustachioed pillow salesmen, hair-plugged swingers from Florida who dress like comic book villains. (How appropriate that “Joker 2” was filming at the same time Trump was being fingerprinted.)
Here is the way we live now. It is considered moral progress that Marjorie Taylor Greene, a congresswoman who sits on the Committee on Homeland Security, concedes that she no longer believes the homeland’s security is managed by a cabal of Satanic child molestors. And she gets a gauzy, redeeming profile on “60 Minutes.” Matt Gaetz’s main legislative achievement to date is not officially violating the Mann Act. George Santos’ CV is distinguished by the absence of any verifiable claims in it; tomorrow he could claim to be an elected U.S. Senator and he’d still have a seat in the House of Representatives.
As a journalist, I have spent my career covering the rest of the world, mostly authoritarian dictatorships. An oft-felt observation among foreign correspondents such as myself during the Trump era was that America now had to be written about as though it were a banana republic, the kind of place about which the State Department should issue travel advisory warnings. “This is communist-level shit,” said Donald Trump, Jr. last week in reaction to news of his father’s indictment, an unintentional compliment to shit-hole countries everywhere.
Yet even in the former Warsaw Pact, shame and disgrace used to be intelligible concepts: it’s why such enormous energy was expended to denying or eliding political wrongdoing. MAGA’s permanent contribution to American politics has been to exult in impunity as a virtue, to convince a sizable chunk of the electorate that shame and disgrace are worse than just obsolete — they’re unmarketable. This is why Trump held a rally in Waco, Texas, on March 25, the anniversary of a notorious federal siege of a deranged religious cult. This is why he teased his own indictment as an opportunity to fundraise for his third presidential campaign. This is why his campaign is hawking a fabricated Trump mugshot on a T-shirt to proclaim his innocence, merch which might as well be shot out of a gun outside the New York courthouse.
Our standard-bearers in the press do us a disservice by depicting today’s events as an earnest denouement owing solely to the fact that this man used to occupy the White House. Even Trump’s downfall is cheap.
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