The indictment of Donald J Trump has not driven a wooden stake through his heart. He has risen, omnipresent and ominous again, overwhelming his rivals, their voices joined into his choir, like the singing January 6 prisoners, proclaiming the wickedness of his prosecution. As he enters the criminal courthouse to pose for his mugshot and to give his fingerprints, evangelicals venerate him as the adulterous King David or the martyred Christ.
Trump does not have to raise his hand to signal to the House Republicans to echo his cry of “WITCH-HUNT”. He owns the House like he owns a hotel.
“I keep him up on everything that we’re doing,” says Marjorie Taylor-Greene, who serves as one of his agents over the House speaker, Kevin McCarthy. Nine of the 25 Republicans on the House judiciary committee and 11 of the 26 on oversight have endorsed him. Elise Stefanik, chair of the House Republican Conference, has pledged her allegiance. Jim Jordan, who refused to honor a subpoena from the January 6 committee, now issues flurries of subpoenas as chair of the Orwellian-named subcommittee on the weaponization of the federal government, to obstruct investigations of Trump, and not incidentally into Jordan’s and other House Republicans’ roles in the insurrection. But not even a subpoena to the New York district attorney, Alvin Bragg, or any other prosecutor, could command the tide of indictments.
Between the motion of Trump’s first indictment and the act of the last Republican primary, more than a year from now, on 4 June 2024, the shadow will fall on the only party with an actual nomination contest. Trump’s pandemonium will only have an electoral valence for the foreseeable future in its precincts. His damage to the constitution, the national security of the United States and the rule of law will be extensive, but his most intense and focused political destruction will be circumscribed within the Republican party.
From the report of every new indictment to its reality, Republican radicalization will accelerate. Every concrete count will confirm every conspiracy theory. Every prosecution and trial, staggered over months and into the election year, from New York to Georgia to Washington, will be a shock driving Republicans further to Trump. Every Republican candidate running for every office will be compelled to declare as a matter of faith that Trump is being unjustly persecuted or be themselves branded traitors.
Profession of the holy creed of election denial has already been broadened to demand profession of the doctrine of Trump’s impunity. Every Republican attempting to run on law and order will be required to disavow law and order in every case in which Trump is the defendant. Trump’s incitement to violence will not have an exception of immunity for the Republican party. Beginning in the Iowa caucuses, the confrontations may not resemble New England town meetings. If Trump were to lose in the first tumultuous caucuses, can anyone doubt he will claim it was rigged? Was January 6 a preliminary for the Republican primaries of 2024?
The death watch of Trump is a cyclical phenomenon. After each of his storms, the pundits, talking heads and party strategists on all sides emerge from their cellars, survey the latest wreckage and check the scientific measurements of the polls to give the “all clear” sign that the cyclone had passed. When Trump lost to Joe Biden in 2020, thoughtful analysts assured that Trump’s time was gone, he would fade away and his comeback in 2024 was an impossibility, just “not going to happen”. Everyone should “relax”. Then came January 6. When Trump’s endorsed candidates in the 2022 midterm elections, a gaggle of election deniers and conspiracy mongers, were ignominiously rejected, last rites were pronounced. Trump was dead again.
Murdoch, Koch et al should have grasped the dangerous fluidity of the extremism they financed and organized for decades
“We want to make Trump a non-person,” Rupert Murdoch said after the January 6 insurrection. Trump’s image was virtually banished from his bandbox of Fox News. He would be airbrushed out of the next episode of history.
“The best thing for the country would be to have a president in 2025 who represents a new chapter,” wrote Emily Seidel, chief executive of the Koch network’s Americans for Prosperity, in a memo.
On 5 February, the Koch dark money syndicate held a conference of its billionaire donors and key activists at Palm Springs, California, to lay the groundwork for the dawning of the post-Trump age. There it was decided to swing its enormous resources behind the candidacy of Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, who they had originally cultivated as one of their Tea Party hothouse congressmen.
The wishful thinking that Trump would magically disappear, however, ignored the omens of Liz Cheney’s purging, the victories of his candidates in the midterm Republican primaries over blanched “normies”, and the corrupt bargain that McCarthy was forced to make to secure his speakership. The implacability of Trump’s political base’s attachment was discounted.
Murdoch, Koch et al should have grasped the dangerous fluidity of the extremism they stoked, financed and organized for decades, which metastasized into Trump. Their approach to Trump was not dissimilar to that of Vladimir Putin, treating him as their useful idiot. Putin’s purpose was and is to use Trump to destroy Nato and the western alliance, and as an agent of chaos within the US of a magnitude that no KGB agent could have recruited during the cold war.
The Koch network contentedly used Trump to pack the courts with Federalist Society stamped judges, deregulate business and thwart policy on climate change. But despite delivering those goods, Trump was ultimately uncontrollable. The problem with Trump was not his wildness and lawlessness. They were willing to tolerate him so long as his administration produced for them. Trump’s foibles were the cost of business. His liability was that he was not their kind of Republican, at heart a laissez-faire free market libertarian. Trump hated international trade and opposed slashing entitlements, particularly social security and Medicare, which they have long tried to hobble and privatize. In 2018, he tweeted his contempt for the “Globalist Koch Brothers, who have become a total joke in real Republican circles … I never sought their support because I don’t need their money or bad ideas. They love my Tax & Regulation Cuts, Judicial picks & more. I made them rich.” But his worst debit for them was that he lost. With DeSantis, they thought they could finally move on. Without Trump, they could wipe the slate clean, restore the past and return to the glory days when the Tea Party militants besieged town hall meetings to shriek against Obamacare. The undercurrent of the oligarchs’ romance with DeSantis is a strange nostalgia.
Trump’s announcement on 18 March that he would be arrested and charged in New York three days later, born of a combination of panic and seizing an opportunity for grift, was not a deliberate strategic masterstroke, though it had that effect. In February, DeSantis led Trump by 45% to 41% in the Yahoo/YouGov poll. In the poll taken just after Trump said he would be arrested, Trump shot into the lead 47% to 39%. After he was indicted, he left DeSantis in the dust, 57% to 31%.
DeSantis’s rhetorical lawlessness in tribute to Trump only enhanced Trump’s pre-eminence over him
Trump had already sent Murdoch’s and Koch’s presumptive candidate reeling. DeSantis has positioned himself as a cultural warrior but Trump smashed into his vulnerable flank. Before he adopted his gay bashing and race- and Jew-baiting persona, DeSantis was a cookie-cutter Tea Party congressman who voted several times to cut social security and Medicare. When Trump slammed him for his votes in early March as “a wheelchair over the cliff kind of guy”, DeSantis renounced his position, saying he would not “mess” with social security. Even before the indictment, Trump had Il Duce of the Sunshine State dancing like Ginger Rogers backwards in the Cuban heels of his cowboy boots. Trump has not relented. The day after he was indicted, his Make America Great Again political action committee broadcast an ad ripping DeSantis: “President Trump is on the side of the American people when it comes to social security and Medicare. Ron DeSantis sides with DC establishment insiders … The more you see about DeSantis, the more you see he doesn’t share our values. He’s not ready to be president.” On the right that Trump has made, national socialism beats laissez-faire.
DeSantis reacted to Trump’s indictment by stating that he would not extradite him from Florida to New York, which nobody had asked him to do. His empty gesture as a two-bit secessionist would be in defiance of the constitution’s article IV extradition clause. Between the emotion and the response falls the hollow man. His rhetorical lawlessness in tribute to Trump only enhanced Trump’s pre-eminence over him.
If anyone should have known better, it was Murdoch. His media properties now veer from slavishly outraged defense of the accused Trump on Fox News (“Witch-hunt!”) to trashing him in the New York Post (“Bat Hit Crazy!”) to puffing DeSantis in the Times of London, not widely read in Iowa or New Hampshire. The ruthless operator has been outplayed. Murdoch, who takes no prisoners, is Trump’s prisoner.
Murdoch profitably buckled in for the Trump ride all the way to January 6. His decision not to jump off for the crash has now landed him in his biggest scandal, thrusting him in the middle of the Trump debacle with a January 6 trial of his own. After the 2020 election, following the lead of Trump and his attorneys, Fox News broadcast that Dominion Voting Systems had changed or deleted votes to help steal the election. The Fox chief executive, Suzanne Scott, wrote in an email shutting down the fact-checking of Trump falsehoods: “This has to stop now … this is bad business … the audience is furious and we are just feeding them material.” On 5 January, the eve of the attack on the Capitol, Murdoch discussed with Scott whether the network should report the truth: “The election is over and Joe Biden won.” He said those words “would go a long way to stop the Trump myth that the election stolen”. Scott told him that “privately they are all there” but “we need to be careful about using the shows and pissing off the viewers”. On 12 January, Murdoch emailed the Fox board member Paul Ryan that he had heard that the Fox host Sean Hannity “has been privately disgusted by Trump for weeks, but was scared to lose viewers”.
Fox was terrified of its own audience, the Trump base it had whipped up day after day, fearful it would defect to a more pro-Trump site, Newsmax or One America News Network. Instead of broadcasting the facts, its executives ordered conspiracy theories and lies be aired to satisfy voracious demand. Murdoch admitted in an email that Trump’s claims of voter fraud were “really crazy stuff”. But the show must go on. Dominion is now suing Fox News for $1.6bn for defamation.
Much of the material in the discovery documents reads like dialogue from a bad French farce.
“I hate him passionately,” wrote a histrionic Tucker Carlson about Trump. Murdoch told Scott about Giuliani’s and the others’ lies: “Terrible stuff damaging everybody, I fear.” On 21 January 2021, Murdoch called Trump “increasingly mad”. Murdoch wondered, after serving as Trump’s chief enabler, “The real danger is what he might do as president.” Quel surprise!
Of course, the specific falsehoods Fox recklessly and maliciously broadcast about Dominion were of a piece with those the network has been pumping out for years. That Murdoch is shocked, shocked is worthy of Capt Renault discovering there is gambling in the backroom of Rick’s Café in Casablanca. “Your winnings, sir.”
The day after Trump was indicted, Judge Eric Davis ruled that the Dominion case would go to trial.
“The evidence developed in this civil proceeding demonstrates that [it is] CRYSTAL clear that none of the [Fox News] statements relating to Dominion about the 2020 election are true,” he wrote. That trial will begin in mid-April and will probably last for weeks with major Fox personalities and Murdoch called to the stand. The very bad news is that in Delaware, where the trial will take place, unlike in New York, where the Trump trial will be held, television cameras are allowed in the courtroom. Undoubtedly, Fox will not be airing the humiliation of its stars and executives, but it is certain that CNN, desperate for ratings, and MSNBC will happily fill schedules with a Fox cavalcade.
Fox’s propaganda was intimately linked to the January 6 coup, but could not be investigated by the January 6 committee. Murdoch’s desperate desire to separate himself from Trump will be impossible when Fox’s lies for Trump in the subversion of constitutional democracy are on full display. The Dominion trial will provide a necessary complement to the trials of Trump, more than an atmospheric touch of political theater, but bearing on politics moving forward. Murdoch, chained to his service to Trump, will not escape a judgment any more than Trump.
The response of Fox’s audience to Fox in the dock will inevitably be to rally around Trump. Murdoch may be finished with Trump but Trump is not finished with him. Murdoch’s trial will contribute to the tightening of support for his object of contempt.
“I am your retribution,” Trump promises. He rages against DeSantis and Fox as “Rinos” – Republicans In Name Only, which is to say Republicans. In the courtroom drama ahead, Trump will flail against his host of prosecutors, but his retribution during his battle for the nomination will be levied against the Republican party.
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