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’Twas the Darkest and Stormiest Night
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’Twas the Darkest and Stormiest Night

The dangers of Donald Trump’s magical thinking.

Former President Donald Trump arrives for an arraignment hearing on April 4, 2023, in New York City. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

Friend, 

I’m writing you this “news”letter as I drive home to Washington, D.C. Okay, technically I’ve pulled over, but you know what I mean. 

I put it this way because yesterday, I got an email from Donald Trump that begins this way:

Friend,

I’m writing you this email as I fly back home to Mar-a-Lago.

While we are living through the darkest hours of American history, I can say that at least for this moment right now, I am in great spirits …

Now, I was a critic of Alvin Bragg’s effort before the indictment was unveiled and I remain one afterward. I think it was ill-advised for all the now-familiar reasons, and I think Ramesh Ponnuru is correct when he says this decision will warp our politics for years to come.  

But one of the nice things about arguing with Donald Trump and his defenders is that they take such extreme positions that they leave everyone else room to maneuver. If you know anything about formal debate, you know it’s always to your advantage to have an opponent take an eminently falsifiable and fringe position. 

“Resolved:  Basset hounds are the swiftest and most agile animals.” 

“The question before the house: Arkansas is made of pimento cheese.”

These kinds of statements leave the opposing side countless rebuttals. 

Yes, I know we’re not supposed to take Trump literally, only seriously. But by any standard short of spelling—and sometimes not even spelling—Trump’s rhetoric is absurd. And remember, this guy wants to be president again. So those of you—and I know you’re out there—who insist that Trump deserves leeway for hyperbole and exaggeration are at minimum grading Trump on a curve you would not allow for pretty much any other politician. If you want to hold Biden’s rhetoric to a serious standard, I’m right there with you. But that standard needs to be an actual standard, not a cudgel of convenience. 

So, no matter how much benefit of the doubt you want to give Trump, the simple fact is that these are not the “darkest hours of American history.” Saying so on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, an event that led to deadly riots in more than 100 American cities, only demonstrates the point. 

Of course, Trump wants people to believe that he’s the nation made flesh, and so his darkest hours must also be the nation’s. This sort of magical thinking is at the heart of all rancid nationalisms—and quite a few other ‘isms, from monarchism, to authoritarianism, and, yes, fascism. 

I think the “they’re not coming after me, they’re coming after you and I’m just in the way” talking point is smart. It’s great for fundraising. It’s great for rallying support in the primaries. But it’s also simply untrue. 

Look, I’m entirely open to the idea that the left is, for the most part, the aggressor in the culture war. I’ve been making that argument for more than two decades (even though we’ve seen a big uptick in right-wing counter offensives of late). But as a political and factual matter, they’re really not going after you, they are quite obviously going after him. 

Moreover—and this is a really important point—he makes it really easy for them to go after him. No one on Team Trump is really arguing that he’s innocent of the actual underlying behaviors here. He obviously shtupped a porn star and a Playboy playmate. He clearly orchestrated the hush money. No one is saying he didn’t record these payments falsely. They’re just arguing that none of this amounts to the sort of felonious activity worthy of indicting a former president. And I think they’re right!

But that underlying behavior, and tons of behavior like it, is bad. It makes him vulnerable to prosecutorial overreach. It also makes him unfit to be a high school principal, never mind the GOP’s presidential nominee or the leader of the free world. 

There are a lot of reasons why many Americans, including a sizable number of Republicans, are not as troubled by Trump’s indictment as his lawyers and other defenders want them to be.  One is Trump’s own double standard when it comes to the rule of law. The guy literally led chants of “lock her up” while running against Hillary Clinton and openly hoped that his supporters—or cops—would rough up protesters

But a more important reason why some people just shrug at Trump’s predicament is that Trump has spent a lifetime pressing his luck, cutting corners, and taking the low road. 

If you spend your whole life looking for trouble, odds are good that eventually you’ll find it. Progressives hate Ron DeSantis, but he doesn’t make their job easier by behaving recklessly. If you juggle chainsaws for fun, I’m not going to be stunned if you eventually lose a finger, even if the incident that ultimately led to an accident wasn’t your fault. “That guy bumped into me!” is a good explanation, but not the best excuse. 

And this gets me my real point. I’ve written a bunch in recent years about how a lot of people on the left think words are magic. If we just change the way we describe a thing, that will change the reality of that thing. Perhaps it’s a feature of my passionate both-sides-ism, but I see a lot of that on the right these days, particularly in response to this indictment. 

On Tuesday, one of Trump’s lawyers said “the rule of law is over in this country” because Trump was arraigned. I get it. He’s a lawyer defending his client. But Twitter and right-wing cable news were punctuated with similar statements.  

But here’s the thing. It’s not like cops have suddenly stopped enforcing laws. I’m sure the Manhattan courthouse that was surrounded by cameras yesterday was busy enforcing the rule of law today. Moreover, the obvious truth is that there have been wildly worse blows to the rule of law over the last couple centuries (don’t get me started on what happened under Woodrow Wilson). 

None of this is to say that you should all shrug at Bragg’s mistake—if you think it’s a mistake. But if the legal case is as weak as many claim, that will be revealed in the course of a trial. Trump has no shortage of lawyers at his disposal and I’m sure they have baskets of legal options available to them. All of the talk about how this makes us like Soviet Russia is ludicrous and, if you ask me, more than a little unpatriotic. At Stalin’s show trials, the accused were often tortured or forced at gunpoint—or their family members were—to confess before they entered the “courtroom.” Yesterday, the judge was emphatic about Trump’s First Amendment rights as he ruled out a gag order. That doesn’t happen in these “Third World” or “banana republic” countries the Trumpists keep comparing us to. When Trump’s lawyers take some of their motions out of their figurative baskets, it’s not like the judge will tell them “it puts the motion back in the basket or it gets the hose again.”

In movies and novels, magic works until the spell is somehow broken. A character touches some talisman, utters some incantation, or eats some plant and all of a sudden the levitating city plummets to Earth or the invisible warriors suddenly become visible. But the rule of law isn’t magic, at least not like that. Again, our history is full of far greater injustices than what happened to Trump yesterday. We learned from those incidents, sometimes very slowly.  Even if you buy the most strident criticisms of Bragg’s decision, his indictment has no inherent magical properties. Slippery slope arguments are problematic enough. But at least they imply a process over time. The new catastrophization is instantaneous.  

The problem with both forms of argument is that they remove agency from our politics. You can tell that some people prattling about how we’re a banana republic now are actually happy about their pronounced bananaism because it gives them permission to be as bad as they claim the left is being. The fight-fire-with-fire caucus has a severe case of pyromania. 

Anyway, you can believe several things are true at once: Bragg’s indictment was ill-advised, but does not—and should not—mean the rule of law is over. Trump is way overdue for some bad karma. The right would corrupt itself even more by embracing the idea that the left’s misdeeds—real and alleged—justify doing the exact same thing.    

At least, I can believe all of these things to be true.


Special announcement: You may have heard a few rumblings by now, and it’s true: On May 1, we’ll be recording a live edition of The Remnant in Washington, D.C. Myself, Steve Hayes, and Brother Stirewalt will spend an hour discussing the state of cable news in America and what can be done to fix it before a studio audience. And yes, we’ll also be discussing our respective Fox News experiences. 

All Dispatch members are invited to attend this special event (space permitting!). It’ll take place in the evening at the American Enterprise Institute. You can RSVP at this link, which also contains timings for the event and AEI’s address. 

We put something like this together once before to mark The Remnant‘s 500th episode, and it filled up quickly. (You can take a look at what that extravaganza looked like here.) As such, if you’re interested in attending, I recommend you RSVP as soon as possible. 

After the panel, Steve, Chris, and I will take questions from the audience. Once that concludes, there will be a reception with drinks and hors d’oeuvres where you’ll have the opportunity to mingle with us and your fellow members of the Dispatch community.

We’re really looking forward to this event, and we hope to see as many of you there as possible. Please come along and join us.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.