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Trump’s Trials Don’t Interrupt His Campaign—They Are His Campaign

Most politicians could never mount a campaign amid four criminal proceedings—but that’s what Trump wants, and we need to understand why.

Alyssa Pointer/Getty Images

The conventional wisdom asks: How can Donald Trump simultaneously participate in all these criminal trials and run for president? The question misses the point of Trumpism, of the creation and propagation of those famous “alternative facts” of which Kellyanne Conway spoke lo those many years ago, and of the power of fascist spectacle over its adherents. The trials are the campaign. To Trump’s followers, nothing else will matter.

And make no mistake about this: Conventional wisdom also would hold that the more times Trump is convicted, the more it will hurt him. That might, on balance, prove to be true—the swing voters of Cobb and Gwinnett counties in Georgia and Bucks and Northampton counties in Pennsylvania will probably ditch him if he’s an actual convicted felon. But his devout followers will back him all the more ferociously with each conviction. In fact, I’d bet the mortgage that four convictions will bring out a higher MAGA vote than a mere one or two.

This makes no sense in normal Earth logic. But under the logic of fascism, normal Earth logic is reversed. This is what people—and far, far too much of the mainstream media—don’t understand. As Sidney Blumenthal wrote in a perceptive Guardian column last week, the trials replace a normal campaign because they “are the drama around which Trump plays his role as the unjustly accused victim, whose rights are trampled and who is the martyr for his oppressed ‘deplorables.’ He is taking the slings and arrows for them. The narcissist is the self-sacrificing saint. The criminal is the angel. The liar is the truth-teller.”

No set of facts as you and I understand them can undo this; can make his followers abandon him. Conventional wisdom, again, has held that once Trump, Rudy Giuliani, and others in his crime family have to abandon the theater of the media for the sober confines of the courtroom, they will have to stop spouting these lies, and the facts will swallow them. Again, this is true to some extent—Giuliani for one has shown that he gets the difference between lying to the media in front of a gardening store and lying to a jury in front of a judge.

But it also fails to understand how the fascist bond between leader and people works. I spent a little time over the weekend with two books. In The Rhetoric of Fascism, professor of rhetoric Ryan Skinnell reflects on the fascist definition of truth. He writes:

Truth is about power; and lying isn’t lying if it strengthens the movement. The ultimate goal in fascist truth, then, is not to have the best, empirically viable facts. The goal is to demonstrate authenticity and commitment to the movement—to get at the essential truth of the world by whatever means necessary.

I also read the great historian Heather Cox Richardson’s upcoming Democracy Awakening, out next month from Viking. She explains why little things like the evidence produced in a court of law can do nothing to penetrate the cocoon in which leader and followers live:

Leaders don’t try to persuade people to support real solutions, but instead reinforce their followers’ fantasy self-image and organize them into a mass movement. Once people internalize their leader’s propaganda, it doesn’t matter when pieces of it are proven to be lies, because it has become central to their identity. As a strongman becomes more and more destructive, followers’ loyalty only increases.… Turning against the leader who inspired such behavior would mean admitting they had been wrong and that they, not their enemies, are evil. This, they cannot do.

This begins to describe for us what we’re in for until November 2024 if Trump is the nominee (to imagine that he won’t be is to imagine that a majority of primary-voting Republicans exist outside this mystical bond and that they will rally behind a single candidate to take Trump out). Joe Biden will be running on his considerable accomplishments and his plans for the future. He’ll be talking about the normal things that normal candidates talk about—the economy, jobs, health care, drug prices, abortion, foreign policy.

Trump will dip into the issues here and there as custom requires. But his campaign will be largely about himself and his martyrdom for his people. This will be to some extent unavoidable, if he’s dashing in and out of courtrooms during the primary season and into the general election campaign. But it will also be what he and his followers want. Biden and his supporters want an election about empirical facts. Trump and his loyalists want an election about fascist truth.

I hope I’ve scared you a little. I mean to. That said, I don’t think it’s fated that a campaign about fascist truth will succeed. In fact, there is a chance—I’m not yet sure how much of a chance—that it will not only lose but fail spectacularly. I can picture a campaign in which the Trump movement spins itself so radically far away from normal American customs and values that even those low-information swing voters see it obviously, and the party is thrashed at every level.

And yet … well, you know there’s always an “and yet.” Trump has a mighty propaganda network behind him (Fox is the mere tip of that iceberg). And most people don’t recognize fascism when it’s staring them in the face, or don’t want to believe it. So an election about fascist truth could win. Which will lead all those people in denial to face the ultimate fascist truth: that if Trump wins next November, it will be the last presidential election they’ll be voting in for quite a while.