Throughout his political career—and his business career as well—Donald Trump has somehow made a virtue of being arguably the most scandal-prone person in American history. He cycles through so many scandals so quickly that no single act of indecency ever really sticks. The sheer volume and velocity of bad press has served him well, as a bizarre form of insulation from accountability. He is, as many have noted, analogous to Mr. Burns, who has so many various ailments that no single one can kill him.
As Mother Jones’s Pema Levy wrote back in October of 2016, the sheer number of Trump scandals made forming a coherent narrative about him impossible. The Clinton campaign, she argued, had taken a kitchen sink approach, highlighting every Trump peccadillo under the sun. But the result was a hash—a “muddied” narrative about Trump’s character, as well as the danger he posed to the country. “Like Mr. Burns’ diseases, all of Trump’s objectionable actions have effectively freed him from the consequences of any one of them,” Levy wrote.
There is, understandably, a concern that Donald Trump is headed in a similar situation as we proceed into the 2024 election cycle. Over the course of just four months, Trump has been indicted four times. He faces more than 100 felony counts. As he enters a primary campaign that will likely be defined, and frequently overshadowed, by as many as five different criminal trials, there is growing concern that Donald Trump has once again managed to turn the spectacular into the mundane. As The New York Times’s resident establishment wisdom-generator Peter Baker wrote about the fourth indictment, which was handed down late on Monday in Georgia, “what was once unprecedented has now become surreally routine.”
Make no mistake: That indictment, brought by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, is a blockbuster compendium of criminality. In contrast to the first three, it includes many of those in Trump’s inner circle—and it utilizes Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations, or RICO, law to ensnare both the former president and a number of his closest associates, including his attorney Rudy Giuliani and his former chief-of-staff Mark Meadows. Like the third indictment, its focus is on Trump’s efforts to undermine the foundation of American democracy and overturn a lawful and legitimate effort. But it also goes much further, charging more than a dozen high-ranking officials and associates of the former president in the scheme. Unlike the charges in indictments two and three, these charges cannot be relieved by a presidential pardon, as they emanate from the state of Georgia. And as with the third indictment, a number of the key witnesses are Republicans, and conservative Republicans at that.
Still, the same threat remains: that this indictment has become, in Baker’s words, “routine.” That is a legitimate worry, given the sheer number of charges Trump faces, and the startling variety of them. The five trials encompass seven years of his political career. The first indictment, in New York, covered a hush money payment sent to a woman Trump had an affair with shortly before the 2016 election; the second involves the unlawful retention of classified documents. The two most recent ones involve his efforts to overturn the 2020 election in its immediate aftermath.
There is, obviously, overlap between the indictment in Georgia and the most recent federal one, which covers the events leading up to the riot at the Capitol on January 6. But the other trials are about disparate, unrelated offenses. Once again, a consensus is forming: All of the bad stuff happening to Trump may very well be good for him. And it’s easy to see why. Trump has clearly benefited from the indictments in the Republican primaries and currently holds what looks like an insurmountable lead.
There’s a tendency, in both the press and the general public, to miss the forest for the trees with Trump—understandable, again, given the sheer level of general clownery and scandal. And yet in this instance, I think it’s possible (and indeed likely) that the criminal prosecutions Trump faces will bleed into one another and, in fact, bolster each other. Taken together, they tell a compelling and coherent story of someone who does not believe that the rules have ever applied to them.
This has thus far, unfortunately, borne out in both small ways (paying hush money to prevent a scandal) and in big ways (trying to overturn a presidential election). But in every instance you see the same features of Trump’s character playing out over and over again: his refusal to admit fault, his arrogance, his stupidity, his basic contempt for democracy. In every instance, Trump insists on bending the rules—often for venal and stupid reasons; occasionally for ones that legitimately threaten the basic foundation of the country. His own ego is privileged over everything. He will do anything to prove that he is not a loser.
This is the untold story of the multiple criminal charges that Trump is facing. They’re pathetic and paint a picture of a fragile and insecure man bent on doing everything in his power to ensure that people see him as more powerful than he really is. The classified documents that Trump held onto were treated as talismans: He wanted to hold onto them so he could wave them at onlookers visiting his Mar-a-Lago club and seek to impress them. He didn’t return them because he couldn’t admit that he had done anything wrong. He knew he lost the 2020 election and sought to overturn it anyway, engaging in a scheme that was dastardly, inept, and, ultimately, deadly. Each of these cases is a reminder of what is at the core of Trump’s political project: He will always privilege himself over everything else. He always has.