Donald Trump’s rambling speech at Mar-a-Lago late on Tuesday night felt like a bad case of deja vu. Wasn’t an unhinged Trump diatribe supposed to be a thing of the past? Hadn’t the world moved on? Couldn’t we just leave him to scream into the void of Truth Social?
Unfortunately, the downside of any investigation into the former US president is that it gives him a soapbox, and an opportunity to dominate the news agenda all over again - whether or not a judge warns him to keep quiet. Indeed, in the run-up to this week’s court hearing in downtown Manhattan there was a widely held view that his team were rejoicing over the indictment, that they couldn’t quite believe their luck. To have been handed an issue they could use to energise his base and launch a proper run at the Republican candidacy in 2024 was a gift, politically speaking at least.
Whether or not their mood was quite so buoyant after seeing New York County District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s charge sheet is unknown - and indeed Trump seemed rather more serious in the photos that emerged from the courtroom. But he was certainly defiant after touching down in his ridiculous personal resort in Florida, rolling out the same old they’re-out-to-get-me rhetoric and conspiracy theories we’ve all tried to tune out over the two years since he exited the Oval Office and sparked an armed insurrection in Washington DC. It was all about the “radical left”, George Soros, Hunter Biden’s laptop, Hillary Clinton’s emails, Russia, Ukraine, Russia again, and the “Trump-hating judge” with links to Kamala Harris. Verbal diarrhoea and dog whistle desperation, from start to finish, and all designed to fire up the keyboard warriors.
Trump is clearly determined to turn every personal scandal involving his nefarious dealings into a national scandal that will affect every American’s sacred freedoms. Which is even more preposterous when you consider the kind of allegations against him, from using campaign funds for hush money payments to stealing official government documents and conspiracy to influence the 2016 presidential election. Not exactly the sort of everyday injustices faced by millions of blue-collar US workers.
Trump’s team will have been heartened by the fact that the charges in the New York case - 34 counts of falsifying business records with "intent to commit another crime and aid and conceal the commission thereof" - constitute a Class E felony, the lowest level in the state. There was also no obvious bombshell amongst them. No smoking gun.
Commentators have already surmised that it is highly unlikely that Trump will face any prison time if convicted, and even if he is handed a custodial sentence, it’s been suggested that the US Secret Service would never allow it to happen, given the obvious security issues of a former occupant of the White House entering a jail house.
What’s not in doubt is that Team Trump is already using the case as political capital. His bid to become the Republican candidate had been floundering and directionless, and he was widely seen as yesterday’s man in the GOP, with a tonne of baggage and a growing tide of opinion against him under the ‘Never Trump’ movement within the party.
But he still retains his most ardent and loyal fans, and by casting the New York indictment as a politically motivated “witch hunt”, he’s talking directly to the Make America Great Again crowd. He’s also indulging in the kind of dangerous, rabble-rousing talk that led to the violent scenes of 6 January 2021. Which is remarkable when you take a step back and think about what happened on that day.
All of this makes current British politics seem like an episode of Downton Abbey by comparison. But we shouldn’t forget that it wasn’t so long ago that we had our own leader who believed the rules didn’t apply to him, and that any attempt to hold him to justice was a partisan attack on democracy. And as we've extensively reported on NationalWorld, there are plenty of UK parliamentarians who love to push the rules to their limits, usually for their own financial gain.
Boris Johnson and Donald Trump are cut from the same cloth, and recent years have shown how susceptible even 'mature' western democracies are to a kind of populist leadership style that thrives on sowing division, while attempting to distract attention away from their own crimes and misdemeanours. By 2023 it’s a well-worn playbook, and we should be on our guard to spot the signs.