By this point in our national relationship with Donald Trump, everyone who is not paid to pretend otherwise pretty much knows what he does and why. One of the more deranging aspects of this situation is that the people paid to pretend otherwise are also the people that write and talk about politics. During his presidency and after, they have switched between two ways of covering him. The first circled him at sufficiently high altitude until observing some accidental collision between Trump and normal executive behavior and then wondering whether that might not have been The Moment He Became President. This deferential approach sought signs that the high national office Trump occupied had made him or might make him someone that he very manifestly is not, whether by association or just by default.
The second establishment tendency was something like the opposite: to treat Trump as a political and cultural force so novel and so aberrant that it had to be significant. This did Trump two enormous favors at once, both by making him seem more successful than he ever was—he was never a widely popular candidate or president, and “political junkie” types will recall that Trump got whomped in his reelection campaign by Joe Biden’s whispering and forgetful ghost, by a margin of more than seven million votes—and also making him into a much more fraught and complicated figure than he has ever been.
Trump’s appeal, and the extent to which he fits so well within or atop a rancid national moment, is not merely uncomplicated but absolutely as thuddingly obvious as everything else about him. Nothing that Trump has ever done has ever been anything but what it looks like. He lies all the time, but because it requires some forethought and intent, higher-order deception is just not in him. He does everything he does for one reason, which is that he wants to do it at the moment it occurs to him to want it; that simple flash of want, which chirps out at periodic intervals like the sounds a smoke detector makes when its battery is dying, justifies anything that he takes or tries simply by virtue of its existence.
Trump ran as that man, on that platform, with the implicit promise that he would cut all those supporters in on his special deal; what grew from that was only sort of a political movement and more strictly a fandom, and driven as fandoms are by gossip and feuds and opportunities for fans to participate in activities designed to boost their guy. What this means is that millions of Americans are now either willing to kill or die for Trump in ways and for reasons specific to whatever it is that he is upset about at any given moment, or (mostly) just fantasize about it online. (The man who tried and failed to kill some FBI agents in Ohio last week in defense of Trump’s honor, was one until he became the other.) None of this is “good,” but it’s not remotely new and would only seem uniquely aberrant to someone who doesn’t pay much attention to how America is from one moment to the next. Trump became famous not because he was remarkable, which he has never been, but because he was such a crystalline expression of such a normal and utterly vile way of being; he became what he is now because, mostly, he was already famous.
It is less worrying that American culture was warped enough to produce even one Donald Trump and elevate him to power—although, again, that is “not what you want”—than it is how many aspirants and opportunists and acolytes were already there waiting for him when he emerged, glazed and poisonous, from the end of the long assembly line that made him. A culture that does not actively seek to create in people a constant quantum of raw spite and aimless resentment and relentless self-centered entitlement, and that fetishizes a perverse, downward-hammering idea of accountability, and whose reigning national fantasies all resolve to delivering retribution and violence without consequence and to public acclaim, would be very unlucky to produce even one Donald Trump. This culture’s got millions.
If that number wasn’t quite enough to keep Trump in office, it is both sure to grow and already well-represented in government’s crucial community of hugely powerful unelected people; the forces that create and sustain the circumstances that enable all this were not defeated by voters in 2020, and necessarily cannot be. It is also true that these people, who all absolutely believe that their urge to take and have is the most sacred and fundamental right, will not stop wanting what they want. They wanted and want what they believed Donald Trump had, but for themselves, and that demand sustains and supports everything else. It makes sense that every insult visited upon Trump’s luxurious facade—an election he lost, or federal agents serving a warrant at his Florida golf club and hauling out some boxes of top-secret documents that he’d been keeping there for some reason or other—is taken as not just an outrage but an existential threat and act of war. That’s what it feels like to them, but also it’s the only way they know how to interpret anything.
Some of that is just the tenor and temperature of the acid reactionary media in which Trump and his acolytes have braised their minds into melting softness. But this booming about war is by now the only way that Trump and his people can communicate, and the only tones they can hear. It is ideological, insofar as it is Mel Brooks’s old joke that “tragedy is when I cut my finger; comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die” stripped of any self-effacement. Again, there is no reason to complicate this. These people are telling you what they believe and who they are through the things they do; the same is true of the many aligned powerful people who might maybe believe all this a little bit less, but who have repeated and amplified it more or less verbatim because they know it’s what they have to do to keep the power they have. The frantic pivoting between unconvincing and contradictory excuses—the boldest of these involves asking people to believe that President Trump was just taking his work home, to study it more carefully—is not any more strategic than it looks, but it really is the best they can do. When you see Richard Nixon’s “if the president does it, it’s not illegal” being cited approvingly, things have gone sideways.
If it is difficult to believe that Donald Trump will get in trouble for violating the damn Espionage Act, it’s not because he hasn’t apparently done that. The act doesn’t require any active attempts to do espionage, which is where Trump’s signature lassitude and world-historic toady-reliance have gotten him off the hook before. The act requires only that someone who has that information “willfully retain” it and “fail to deliver it on demand” when told to do so, and both a generalized willful retention and the persistent failure to deliver upon request are as close to core values as Trump has. The problem is that the same culture that created Donald Trump and then raised him as high as it could has also evolved to serve people like him above and beyond any other end. This was the horror and the sick daily thrill of his presidency—to watch as every institution revealed itself, under the unrelenting pressure of his appetite and sloppiness, to be quite willing to do what he wanted instead of what it had ostensibly been built to do; to see the sour and ancient spirit of our laws win out over their more outwardly high-minded letter; to see the national fantasy of endless passive income and bulletproof personal impunity that Trump embodied emerge as the only political principle of a major political party.
Under those circumstances, whether Trump committed a crime here, or what crime he committed, seems less meaningful than how familiar it all feels. Trump’s heedlessness means that he has been committing crimes, big and small but more or less nonstop, for many years. He has done nothing but get away with it. This is the story of his rise, and also the reason that it has so often felt like falling. The crimes get bigger, but somehow never any less shabby or more masterful or even more intentional; he has always been a man who could commit espionage not so much by accident, but just by being himself. If this is his biggest crime, it would be foolish to assume that anyone yet knows just how embarrassing and how stupid it might get, or that it will be the last.
It seems unlikely that any of it will be different. The man has only ever had one trick, and it has never, ever mattered; he has never once acted as if it could, and so it is just the same revelation over and over again. It makes sense, then, that Trump and his people seem so outraged and so afraid at the possibility that any of this might somehow finally be made to matter—not just because of those potential consequences, but because of the principle. The absolute freedom from consequence they demand is everything. A whole brutal world depends upon it.