Into the black
David Remnick performs the useful service of reminding everyone of the sheer incredulity that until it actually happened would have accompanied any accurate description of what has happened in this country over the past seven years:
Former President Donald Trump, twice impeached, yet impervious to shame, was indicted Thursday on criminal charges related to the payment of hush money to a porn star. There was a time in American history, almost impossible to recollect now, when such a sentence, such a plot point, would have been beyond our imagining. That has not been the case for a very long time.
In early 2016, the ascent of such a clownish demagogue, a sleazy real-estate hustler who had only begun to reveal the full depths of his bigotry and authoritarian impulses, was a laugh line. At the time of his last State of the Union address, Barack Obama gave an airily confident interview to Matt Lauer, of NBC, asserting that the “overwhelming majority” of the electorate would see through Trump’s “simplistic solutions and scapegoating” and elect Hillary Clinton. Lauer pressed Obama: “In no part of your mind and brain can you imagine Donald Trump standing up one day and delivering the State of the Union address?”
Obama found that funny. “Well,” he said through laughter, “I can imagine it in a ‘Saturday Night’ skit.”
It turns out that SNL skits, as well as movies like Network and Being There and Idiocracy are a lot more amusing to watch than to live through.
The fact that Trump was president, and the fact that he’s going to be the Republican nominee for president next year, are both total indictments of American politics and culture, from which there is no appeal. The system, such as it is, has failed utterly, and the only question now is how this utter failure is going to continue to play out.
The natural reflex is to imagine that Trump, who almost certainly will be dealing with multiple criminal indictments over the next year and a half, has no chance of defeating Joe Biden in next year’s election, because imagining such a thing is just too preposterous.
This of course is exactly the reaction all the very serious and important people had the first time around, which one would think would inoculate them from making the same mistake twice in a row. One would think, but one would be wrong, because one of the fundamental facts of the Trump era is that everyone who opposes him cannot on some level really believe this is happening, because really believing that would lead to a psychologically and emotionally unacceptable conclusion, which is that the system — our politics, our culture, our nation — has really and truly failed in a comprehensive and quite possibly irredeemable way. I don’t exempt myself from this denial — 99% of the time I refuse to believe what is in fact happening is in fact happening, because that’s the only way to try to get over, as Curtis Mayfield once put it when commenting on the life of a fictional New York City pimp, as opposed to the real one at the incomprehensible center of our political life.
One of the ironies of the Bragg indictment is that it’s, legally speaking, a rather tricky case, as it hinges almost completely on the testimony of Michael Cohen, who is for obvious reasons not an ideal witness. What’s ironic about the technical difficulties of this particular indictment is that everyone knows Trump is quite literally a career criminal — a man who probably hasn’t gone six months at any time over the past half century without committing at least one serious crime, in much the same way that it would have been impossible to find a six-month stretch during his adult life when Carlo Gambino didn’t commit a serious crime or three or ten.
But all that is really beside the point: America elected a clownish gangster to the presidency, and may well do so again despite everything. Facing up to that reality is the first step in fighting against it. That, more than any of the technical legal details of Bragg’s indictment, is what this legal episode is actually about.
The Bragg indictment, like the indictments still to come, is on the most fundamental level an indictment of this nation.