–Arts and letters for the modern age–

Cathode Ray Zone

–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

The Trump Effect

by | Mar 22, 2024

Of all the things to do with Trump, the man himself is the easiest to understand. That a personality disordered degenerate and criminal will do anything to avoid paying the piper is hardly surprising. What mystifies is the behavior of those who intersect with Trump: in government; media; activist circles; the courts. Maladjustment and moral depravity may be credible and illuminating when applied to individuals or small numbers of people. They are not when ascribed to entire sectors of our society or to populations as a whole. A few people can be crazy and terrible. The whole world cannot, as the relevant terms imply deviation from a norm and would need to be redefined.

By the “Trump Effect,” I mean his curious ability to disarm; curious not just because many of the relevant actors — judges, reporters, political operatives — would seem to be the sorts of people who should not be easily disarmed, but because the disarmament effected is not the result of charm but its opposite. Ted Bundy achieved his malevolent aims through smooth talking and charisma. Donald Trump does it by way of vulgarity and buffoonery. It is easy to understand being taken in by sweet words and soft candlelight. It is not easy to understand falling under the spell of a person who is soiling and beclowning himself.

I might accept the idea that Trump’s most hardcore supporters are fans because of his vulgarity and disordered personality rather than in spite of them, but this can’t account for the passivity and acquiescence of judges in New York or Washington DC or of the people working in the newsrooms of the New York Times or CNN or in progressive political and activist circles. It’s this aspect of the Trump “Effect” that I’m interested in and which would appear to defy explanation.

What to make of the media? Certainly the days of Walter Cronkite and Woodward and Bernstein and the Pentagon Papers and the professionalism and seriousness once associated with the news business are long gone. But when Trump plays shadow president and holds a faux state visit for Viktor Orban, is it too much to ask news outlets to explain who Orban is and why Trump palling around with him might be a cause for concern? Does “fair and balanced” coverage require journalists to soft-pedal the fact that Trump has been found civilly liable for sexual assault and defamation and his organization civilly and criminally liable for fraud? And given that Trump is demonstrably more confused and prone to gaffes and gibberish than Biden, why is Biden’s age a perpetual news story when Trump’s is not? For an allegedly biased, “liberal” media, they’re going quite easy on the orange Donald.

Trump also has demonstrated what shallow, flimsy things the “Me Too,” “antiracism,” and other progressive social trends are. Al Franken was driven out of the Senate for a silly gag, in which he merely pretended to grope a woman, but Trump sexually assaults women, publicly insults and defames them, and brags about overturning Roe v. Wade, while progressives fret about Joe Biden. (The “pussy hat” contingent from 2017 seems to have lost its mojo.) Trump and his operatives suggest that black people will support him because they like gaudy sneakers and because he’s been arrested and had his mug shot taken, but the Ibram Kendis and Robin D’Angelos of the world remain concerned mostly with rooting out racism that is “implicit” and “systemic,” the flagrant, in-your face variety apparently being passé. Trump brags about his “Muslim ban,” promises to deport everyone and everybody, and advocates for the utter and complete destruction of the Gaza Strip and the extermination of everyone in it (his son in law, Jared Kushner, has suggested that once cleared of its residents, Gaza should be developed with luxury condos and hotels), but the “Free Gaza” and “Islamophobia” crowd is mostly angry with Biden, “uncommitted” getting 13% of the primary vote against him in Michigan, with its substantial Arab population. Michigan, of course, is a swing state and could determine the outcome of the election.

The hardest thing to understand, however, is the courts. 

The Supreme Court’s behavior, though the most appalling for its corruption and stupidity, is also the most comprehensible insofar as SCOTUS is ultimately a political body and is dominated by Trump loyalists, with just a handful of desultory liberals wandering around the place. Any normal court, having read the authoritative decision issued by the DC Circuit Court of Appeals and contemplating the preposterousness of the idea of “absolute Presidential immunity” in a constitutional republic, would have refused to hear the case or simply affirmed the lower court’s judgment, but not SCOTUS, which lapped the thing up like custard and which includes among its members a justice whose wife was directly involved in the very attempted coup Trump is being tried for. And let’s not even get started on SCOTUS’s ruling in the Colorado disqualification case, where the court’s constitutional “originalists” and “textualists” suddenly discovered that the Fourteenth Amendment doesn’t mean what it plainly says and rendered it effectively impossible to prevent insurrectionists and seditionists from being President, if the person in question enjoys a loyal majority in Congress.

More difficult to grasp is the behavior of judges like Tanya Chutkin in Washington DC, Arthur Engoron in New York, and Scott McAfee in Georgia. Having been granted pretrial release and under gag orders across multiple criminal and civil cases, Trump relentlessly attacks prosecutors, judges and their staff, and witnesses and incites his followers to do the same and worse — and they do, doxing, swatting, sending bags of white powder, and all that sort of thing — while the judges in question do nothing. Whereas such violations of gag orders and pretrial release conditions would earn anyone else punishing fines, contempt charges, or a remand to jail, Trump gets nothing but weak reprimands and monetary slaps on the wrist. Indeed, Trump repeatedly defamed E. Jean Carroll on social media, while he was sitting in court being tried for defaming her, and the judge did bupkis. And what can one say about the bizarre circus led by judicial carnival barker Scott McAfee, in which Trump co-defendant Mike Roman, a Trump opposition researcher and dirty trickster, was allowed to hijack his own criminal trial by going after the prosecutor for dating another prosecutor, which involved no conflict of interest and provides no basis for dismissal in Georgia? With the exception of the two civil trials in New York, where Trump and his organization have been found liable for a staggering, combined 600 million dollars, America’s courts have been the gift that keeps on giving to Donald Trump.

I might understand all of this if Trump was some Mafia Boss, known to have people and their families executed on nothing but a word. I might also understand it if Trump was smooth and shrewd and charming, in the manner of a sophisticated confidence trickster. But Trump is neither of these things. Instead, he is a coarse, stupid loudmouth, who sweats and bellows and gropes and incites and lies and cheats and steals; all out in the open for everyone to see. And if he wins re-election, it won’t be Trump who is to blame. It’ll be all the rest of us — and especially our institutions— who allowed him to do it.

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