The Indictment, Sleaze, and Trump’s World

Photograph Source: Chaz Stevens – CC BY-SA 4.0

The indictment of Donald Trump by a grand jury in New York has made headlines and front-page news. As it should have. He is the first president or former president to be indicted. Behind the headlines is the fact that what he is being indictment for – 34 counts of falsifying business records – momentarily pushes off the radar three potentially more damaging cases against him: 1) encouraging his followers to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power leading to the January 6 assault on the Capitol; 2) mishandling secret documents and subsequent efforts to obstruct justice; 3) pressuring election officials in Georgia to overturn election results.

Briefly, to stay with the New York case, it is worth speculating about the consequences of District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s N.Y. case. What will happen if Trump is found innocent? The prosecutor’s case rests mostly on the testimony of the former Trump bag man Michael Cohen, not the ideal person to rely on. If Trump is found innocent, it will certainly add to his victim narrative – what some have called adding “rocket fuel to his 2024 campaign – and add doubt to the three other cases. While the actual trial will not take place right away, the limited nature of the New York indictments takes oxygen out of the other possible indictments.

All the headlines about his New York indictment have not encouraged fellow Republicans or Fox news to turn against him. Trump’s loyal followers have continued to support him despite four bankruptcies, explicit tapes showing his outrageous misogyny, and numerous other un- presidential comments and actions. Trump’s campaign claimed he raised $4 million in the 24 hours after the indictment. Jason Miller, a Trump aide, tweeted that the former president raised $7 million for his re-election since he was indicted. The New York Times reported that “Shares in Digital World Acquisition Corp., the special purpose acquisition company seeking to merge with Trump’s media business, have climbed more than 20 percent since he used his Truth Social platform to declare last month that his arrest was imminent.”

Seventy-five million U.S. citizens voted for Trump in 2020. According to polls, he remains the front running Republican candidate for 2024. Will the New York indictments enhance his martyr image further enraging and encouraging the base? Remember, this is the man who bragged during a campaign swing in Iowa in 2016: “I have the most loyal people…I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK?” he said. “It’s, like, incredible.”

Besides speculating about the consequences of the hush money case, more time should be spent on the case itself. I don’t mean whether or not Michael Cohen is a reliable witness. Nor do I mean did Trump make the payment to quiet Stormy before the election which could become a federal offense.

No, my point is that the former president of the United States is being indicted for covering up an affair with a porn star. Am I being prurient about a president or candidate having an extramarital affair? Absolutely not. Even in Calvinist Geneva, “stuff” happens. The history of the United States is filled with candidates or presidents with mistresses – great heroes like Franklin Delano Roosevelt who died in the company of his socialite mistress Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd or General Dwight Eisenhower’s relationship with his chauffeur Kathleen Summersby during World War II.

My focus is on Stormy Daniels. Stormy Daniels is total sleaze, just like Donald Trump.

That’s Fintan O’Toole’s point in a fabulous piece in The New York Review of Books about Trump and the porn star. There is no moral judgment for or against the world of sleaze; O’Toole merely describes where Trump has taken the nation, and where his base seems rooted.  O’Toole highlights the virtual reality of Trump’s world and the differentiation between politics and entertainment. He writes: “We are in a very Trumpian world where the relationship between real events and the narratives they generate has gone wild.”

And it is Trump’s world that seems to have a grip on too many Americans. O’Toole presents that world:

“This episode [the relationship with Daniels] comes from, and gives new life to, the world of performative politics in which he remains the leading player. It is a lurid—and seductively entertaining—sideshow in the great circus of which he is the ringmaster. It keeps that fading extravaganza on the road. History is being made, but it is, like Trump himself, history unfolding the second, third, and fourth time as farce, so that its primary tragedy is buried under layers of absurdity.”

For those fascinated by the Trump/Daniels saga and the court case in New York, O’Toole has a fitting conclusion to where we are: “Making a drama out of Trump’s sex life is turning politics back into another freak show, the very genre in which he thrives.”

Opposed to Trump’s circus and freak show, the former prime minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, said in a farewell speech to the New Zealand Parliament, “You can be anxious, sensitive, kind and wear your heart on your sleeve. You can be a mother, or not, an ex-Mormon, or not, a nerd, a crier, a hugger – you can be all of these things, and not only can you be here – you can lead.”

Let’s leave freaks and their sleazy side shows aside. Let’s turn off reality television and Trump. Let’s leave performance and reality television. Amid all the noise coming out of New York, let’s keep our eyes on the other three cases.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.