Given a slew of recent events, plus an abysmal showing by the Republican candidates in the 2022 midterms, there is a very good possibility that 2023 will be the year the Republican Party finally cuts ties with the man who has in the last three election cycles proven himself to be electoral poison.
Perhaps sensing his change in fortunes, as 2022 waned, Donald tried to sell himself as a superhero. (After the announcement of his 2024 presidential bid landed with a thud and then the aforementioned midterms, he certainly needed one.) We were led to expect a significant announcement—perhaps Donald was announcing his running mate or, even better, his run as an independent or the creation of a third party. Instead, we got another grift. Trump digital trading cards, non-fungible tokens the value of which seemingly lies in the prizes you’re eligible for if you are far gone enough to purchase them.
I first saw the news on Twitter and thought it was a joke. Then I had the great misfortune to watch Donald’s promotional video, which also seemed like a joke but had just the right combination of lousy production values, desperation (“Hopefully your favorite president of all time, better than Lincoln, better than Washington”), self-conscious self-promotion, and Dark Brandon envy to convince me otherwise. It was an exercise in abject narcissism and self-delusion, and I’m embarrassed to say I was shocked by it.
It’s not that I thought Donald was incapable of stooping that low—there never is any bottom for him—but I wondered, not for the first time, “Is there not one person in Donald’s inner circle who cares for him?” Perhaps this is what happens when a man with serious and untreated mental illness is not only surrounded by yes-men but is also vulnerable because his out-of-control ego and shamelessness are being used by those who are willing to manipulate him in order to make a buck, no matter how ridiculous he looks in the process.
On Twitter, a user named Kilgore Trout tweeted to his 78,000 followers, “This is starting to feel the tiniest bit like elder abuse.” And so it is.
Don’t misunderstand me. I am not asking anybody to feel pity for him. But watching somebody decompensate so publicly should unnerve all of us, especially when you consider that less than two years ago he was the most powerful person on the planet, the leader of the free world. He continues to be the leader of the Republican Party and is currently its only candidate for the 2024 presidential election, which makes him one of the most powerful people in America.
With all of that power, his closest advisers are telling him that the best use of his time is to start another grift a month after he announced his run.
As I looked through the poorly photoshopped images, each one more delusional than the next, representative of a deeply broken man-child who believes he is the center not only of his own universe but everybody else’s as well, it suddenly hit me—these are digital trading cards. The fucking things don’t even exist in the real world!
Only a few days later, Donald’s December got much worse. Sure, the NFTs sold out, but even some of his most ardent supporters (e.g. white supremacist media personality Baked Alaska), who have stuck with him through the Big Lie, an insurrection, and the deaths of over a million Americans as the direct result of his malicious mishandling of the pandemic, were beginning to question their loyalty. And then came the final January 6 committee hearing.
To open the hearing, Chairman Bennie Thompson said, “There’s one factor I believe is most important in preventing another January 6: accountability. Evidence we’ve gathered points to further action, beyond the power of this committee or the Congress, to ensure accountability under law, accountability that can only be found in the criminal justice system.”
To underscore the seriousness and sincerity of this statement, the committee voted unanimously for the first time in our history to refer a former occupant of the Oval Office to the Department of Justice to be prosecuted on four charges: obstruction of an official proceeding of the United States government; conspiracy to defraud the United States; conspiracy to make a false statement; and inciting, assisting, or aiding and comforting an insurrection.
In announcing the charges, Democratic Representative Jamie Raskin said, “Ours is not a system of justice where foot soldiers go to jail and the masterminds and ringleaders get a free pass.”
Mark Meadows, Donald’s former chief of staff, and lawyers Rudolph W. Giuliani, John Eastman, Jeffrey Clark, and Kenneth Chesebro were all implicated.
And yet, not mentioned as co-conspirators were Lauren Boebert, Mo Brooks, Madison Cawthorn, Louie Gohmert, Paul Gosar, and Marjorie Taylor Greene, House members who all participated in planning meetings ahead of the insurrection. Neither are the eight Republican senators and 133 other Republican members of the House who voted to overturn the results of a free and fair election even after Congress was overrun on January 6, 2021. The abysmally irresponsible decision to let the traitor Ginny Thomas, a major player in not only the planning of the insurrection but in the fake electors scheme, off the hook is mystifying. Her Supreme Court justice husband, Clarence, who was the only sitting member of Scotus to vote against making Donald’s documents available to the January 6 committee and who refuses to recuse himself from any cases involving the insurrection or the 2020 election, still serves on the nation’s highest court unhindered by scruples, decency, or accountability.
How is it possible that the corrupt Tony Ornato and a Secret Service agency that has been mired in increasing levels of corruption for decades have faced no real scrutiny? Mike Pence didn’t trust the Secret Service either to protect him from an armed mob or to allow him to fulfill his constitutional duties on January 6. Because of concerns that other agents were so loyal to Trump that they would not sufficiently protect him, Joe Biden had an entirely new team assigned. Yet no steps have been made to reform the agency.
After Hope Hicks relayed her concerns about his “legacy” to her boss, Donald is reported to have said, “Nobody will care about my legacy if I lose, so that won’t matter. The only thing that matters is winning.” Winning at all costs, though, as Donald knows from dozens of firsthand experiences stretching across his entire lifetime, is almost always losing plus cheating—plus a phalanx of enablers.
From the time the Republican Party accepted the inevitability of Donald’s nomination in 2016, the danger has remained the same—that by failing to push back against even his most egregious behaviors, Republicans have allowed them to become normalized.
None of this even takes into account the GOP’s silence in the face of Donald’s massive breaches of norms and protocols during the transition, including the corruption of the Department of Defense at the highest level, the intelligence failures leading up to January 6 riot, and law enforcement missteps and miscommunications during the insurrection.
As mind-scrambling as all of this is—the man, after all, still roams free not only to pursue his latest grift but to lead the Republican Party as its candidate for the 2024 presidential election—the question remains: “Will any of it make a difference?”
What the last few weeks have reminded us is that the pattern repeats: The grift keeps him afloat, at least in the short-term, while keeping all eyes on the shiny object; the revelations about Donald’s misrepresentations (most recently his tax returns) actually strengthen the sense among his followers that he is being unfairly persecuted; and continuing to get away with all of the transgressions increases his sense of invulnerability.
What troubles me is the extent to which all three things give the Republican Party a solid opportunity to pretend Donald has been the problem all along.
The $1.7 trillion spending bill released just before Christmas includes changes to the Electoral Count Act of 1887 that would effectively Trump-proof future elections and coup-proof America. This is all to the good, but if we don’t acknowledge that it is the current incarnation of the Republican Party is the greatest threat facing the future of this country, we are stopping far short of the mark.
Every single new grift or lawsuit or criminal charge involving Donald over the last few weeks is a Republican Party off-ramp away from a man it desperately wants to be done with, not because of the crimes or the fascism—it is crucial to note—but because he has become electoral poison. There have been many such off-ramps before but as long as Republican leadership, the Republican rank and file, and Republican candidates found Donald useful, necessary, or both, he has had their support.
If the party chooses to take one of those off-ramps now, it will be because it has finally come to the conclusion that, although it may not be able to win elections without Donald, it definitely can’t win any with him. It will reject him while continuing the policies he rubber-stamped on its behalf. The Republican Party is a party of autocrats and fascists. Jettisoning Donald won’t change that. Our job is to tie him around its neck like the albatross he is while reminding anybody who will pay attention that, either explicitly or tacitly, it supported his cruelty, his misogyny, his racism, his antisemitism, his destruction of norms, his flouting of tradition, his mendacity, his stealing of highly classified top-secret documents, his refusal to concede his loss, his incitement of an insurrection, and his role in the deaths of over a million Americans. It went along with all of this because it has served the party.
The January 6 committee report was released before Christmas, and it is devastating. But the report is simply that and the charges are merely referrals. There is a chance in the end that it all will have been purely symbolic, that the real indictment of Donald will be the judgment of history.
To say that this is unsatisfying would be an understatement of vast proportions. Because what happens to Donald is not simply about justice or fairness. The crossroads at which we currently find ourselves has more to do with whether those in a position to heal our broken institutions decide instead to do nothing, thereby leaving us and our country, broken permanently.
We keep being reminded by people urging patience that the doors are closing in on Donald—they ostensibly have been for decades. But they’re still open.