Donald Trump may have spent the past year creaming his wan Republican competition in the polls, but the news has not been all wine and roses for the former president—at least not in America’s legal venues. He has collected a scavenger hunt’s worth of indictments and faces a formidable calendar of dates as a professional defendant. What Trump is about to endure has few historical precedents—limp comparisons to Eugene V. Debs notwithstanding. This is shaping up to be a strange campaign, fought on large patches of undiscovered country.
But even as we fantasize about the consequences catching up with Trump, it must be said that once again he has us right where he wants us: at the center of a newshole that he is dominating. The Man Who Ate the Discourse is back, devouring whole news cycles, his attendant Gorpmans and Bleemers hopping in and out of the headlines. And with the news that the Georgia trial will be televised—for months on end—the potential for a feeding frenzy seems likely. But should this become a demented spectacle, remember: It’s not the fault of those who are seeking to hold the former president to account.
It’s not out of the realm of possibility that the media will either catastrophize the effort to hold Trump accountable or turn the justice-seekers into the villains of the story. The campaign trail is long and dull, and this time out it will wind through numerous courtrooms, in which Trump will be arrayed against a constantly shifting cast of “opponents.” Ever on the hunt for the mythical “balance” that they believe defines pure, mountain-grown political coverage, the press may well endeavor to cover these trials neutrally, as opposed to fairly—that is to say, to locate some imaginary middle ground between a criminal and his victims to defend, instead of considering the substance of the matter.
In a recent piece for The Wall Street Journal, Peter Funt convincingly argues that the transparency gained from televising the trials offsets whatever media circus is created. But along the way, he identifies a litany of concerns that we might soon hear spilling out of the hyped-up mouths of the hand-wringers on your local cable news panel—that the substance of the cases against Trump will be lost amid the grandstanding, cheapening the whole affair and thus contributing to an overall erosion of faith in the judiciary.
As Funt reminds, some fairly dubious theories about Trump have already been marshaled to argue that this moveable media feast will prove disastrous, such as the belief that the former president is some kind of inimitable maestro of the televisual arts and the idea that all of these indictments are a secret boon to his campaign. I am sorry to use this particularly overused term, but these notions are all just vibes. None of it is tethered to a quantifiable reality. It is clearly preferable to not get indicted, four times over, if you want to run for president. And Trump’s reputation for being some kind of teevee trickster all stems from the fact that he has benefited immensely from promiscuous cable news coverage.
Trump’s also already benefiting from some early carping about the media circus that’s lying over the horizon. Last week, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat complained about the logistics of Trump’s federal trial—the one in which he’ll face charges for conspiring to overturn the 2016 election. At issue was Judge Tanya S. Chutkan’s decision to begin proceedings on March 6 of next year, the day before Super Tuesday. This, to Douthat’s mind, was an “extremely suboptimal convergence.”
“If you take the judicial process seriously,” he wrote, “then clearly under ideal circumstances the trial of a major presidential contender would be completed before voters begin passing judgments of their own.” Well, sure? But what is Judge Chutkan supposed to do about this? As writer Tom Scocca pointed out in his newsletter, Chutkan had to fit her obligations into a calendar already crowded with Trump trials: “The only way to keep one or another of Trump’s trials from happening during a sensitive part of the primary season is by pushing things back into a sensitive part of the general election season.”
Yes, it’s true, these are suboptimal choices, all the way down. Court dates are mashing up against court dates, which in turn are abutting important dates on the primary calendar. I think one thing that maybe every party involved in these matters can agree on is that none of this is ideal. But who, then, should fill the blank space that Scocca locates in Douthat’s argument, the person to whom the “blame, formless and insinuating,” should attach?
Here’s a thought: Maybe it’s Trump’s fault! Trump’s allies keep darkly muttering, “If they can do this to Trump, they can do it to you too.” And my response is: “Well yes, that’s the whole point!” My one neat trick for avoiding indictments charging me with trying to overturn an election is to not try to overturn an election. And in the parallel universe where Trump had offered a dignified concession, no one’s worried about whether his federal trial is too close to Super Tuesday. It was a failure of accountability that gave rise to the media circus that’s coming down the pike. Maybe a strong dose of it will actually end this spectacle once and for all.
This article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.