Trump isn’t the ringmaster he once was. But we’re still watching his show | Moira Donegan

Reporters were lined up outside overnight, hoping to get one of just a handful of press seats in the courtroom. Protesters arrived, too, both supporting and opposed to the former president, and the cops corralled them into separate pens. By mid-morning, the scene on Centre Street in lower Manhattan had become crowded, chaotic and carnivalesque. Anti-Trump liberal protestors chanted “Lock him up!”, mimicking Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan in a delighted display of sinking to your opponent’s level.

Pro-Trump protestors donned aviator sunglasses and their trademark red hats, and led confused cries of, “USA! USA!” Someone had handed out whistles, transforming the scene into a discordant, echoing cacophony. There were cameras outside Trump Tower in Midtown to film when he got into his motorcade to go to the arraignment, and there were cameras there outside the courthouse, to watch him get out of the car and walk inside.

Never one to miss an opportunity for attention, some of the Republican party’s most colorful figures appeared, too. George Santos, the disgraced Long Island congressman who was exposed shortly after his election of having fabricated his résumé and who is alleged to have supported himself with a series of weird frauds before entering political life, made an appearance. So did Marjorie Taylor Greene, the conspiracist Republican congresswoman from Georgia, who tried to stage her own rally across the street from the courthouse. Eventually she left, drowned out by the jeers and noise. Afterwards, being interviewed by a reporter in the back of a car, Greene compared Donald Trump to Nelson Mandela and Jesus Christ, who she noted were also arrested.

So much of the scene at Donald Trump’s arraignment on Tuesday – at which the former president was charged with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records, and conspiracy, pleading not guilty to all – seemed cynically calculated, a way for the various players and those present to try to siphon off some of the massive media attention that has been focused on the event for themselves.

But figures like Santos and Greene, for their part, are not wrong in depicting themselves as Trump’s heirs: it was he who ushered unmasked fraud and open conspiracy theorizing into the national political process, he who dispensed with the pretexts of service and patriotism to embark on a politics of naked resentment and self interest, he who transformed American national politics into the carnival of cynicism and indignity that it is today. Trump is not the ringmaster that he once was – the man now charged in the state of New York is weak and damaged – but we’re all still watching his show.

‘It’s a circus’: Outside Trump’s surreal day in court – video

Will the criminal charges be good for Trump? Trump seems to think so, or at least that’s what he’s trying to project to the public. He raised a lot of money for his third presidential bid over the five days between his indictment and his arraignment: $7m, according to campaign officials. And as he was inside the courthouse being charged, his campaign sent out a fundraising email, asking supporters to purchase tee shirts featuring a fake mug shot of the former president, along with the words “NOT GUILTY.” They cost $47 a piece.

And the indictment has placed Trump’s would-be rivals for the Republican nomination in an awkward position: they want to distance themselves from Trump, but they can’t afford to alienate his supporters, those die-hards who still make up a ruling majority of the Republican base. If anything, the indictment has made it seem more likely that Trump will secure the Republican nomination, for the same reasons it seemed likely back in 2016: while Republican elites and donors scramble to stop him, and rival candidates define themselves against his example, he’s still the sun around which the Republican party orbits, a force exponentially more powerful than the party itself.

But that’s not to say that Trump is particularly strong. Over the days proceeding the arraignment, as news stations breathlessly broadcast footage of Trump’s plane taking off from Miami and as the circus proceeded outside the courthouse in Manhattan, liberals online and in the media began to feel a palpable sense of unease. All this attention on Trump felt a little too much to them like the beginnings of the primary season in the 2016 cycle – the election that he won.

Should we even be paying attention to this? Have we learned nothing? But with Trump, even studied indifference to him still makes him the center of political attention, like when you tell someone not to think of a white elephant.

And perhaps it’s a testament to the strange power that Trump has in the minds of liberals that so many of them think that his indictment on 34 felony charges could be good for his electoral prospects. Trump once boasted that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose any votes. Some liberals seem to imagine that Trump could drop dead in the middle of Fifth Avenue, and still find a way to become president again.

It’s true, too, that Trump is not the candidate he once was. In 2016, Trump had the advantage of novelty, of shock value; people kept their eyes on him because they didn’t know what he would do next.

Now everyone knows what he will do next: his is a mind the nation has gotten to know through endless exposure, and few people are as consistent and reliable in their dishonesty and egotism. His boasting, his claims that it’s all unfair – they’re so predictable as to be boring. And Trump, it’s worth saying, has gotten myopic and creepy; at his rallies now he’s less funny and charismatic than he once was, referencing QAnon and various obscure political figures he feels have wronged him.

He once had a knack for channeling and weaponizing white and male grievance, often disguised as class resentment, and for funneling hatred of the elites for his own purposes. But now he’s abandoned all pretext of reciprocating his followers’ loyalty: he speaks of them with open contempt. With the exception of a rabid few, they’re eventually going to abandon him, too, or at least wane enough in their enthusiasm that fewer and fewer of them are going to vote.

The result was that watching Trump shuffle into the courthouse on Tuesday was a bit like watching a caged gorilla at the zoo: the strength has been taken from him, rendered useless and where once he was formidable and scary, now he just looks ridiculous, less an object of fear than of spectacle.

Things could still change for Trump; they’ve changed for him before, and anyone who witnessed the 2016 race knows better than to discount him entirely. But he’s been getting weaker, not stronger, for a long time now. There’s a long way to go until the 2024 election, but you could make an argument that the season began on Tuesday, when Trump entered the courthouse. It’s not an auspicious start.

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