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It Only Seems Unprecedented

Former President Donald Trump arrives for his arraignment at Manhattan Criminal Court on April 4, 2023.
Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

It is very easy to find video of Donald Trump supporters singing the national anthem, which makes it much more difficult to find the version that periodically stumbles warbling up out of the fog and into my head. It is easy to find, say, a video of a bunch of Proud Boys singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" outside Alex Jones's hotel on November 14, 2020, after the first of several rallies challenging Trump's election loss. There is enough of this sort of thing out there that you don't even need to watch it to know how it sounds; I do not need to tell you about how everyone is bassing up their voices like little kids do and chanting it more than singing it, or that it ends with a U-S-A chant. But because everything having to do with Trump's political career gets repeated near-identically hundreds of times as a matter of course—as a matter of principle, even—the version that I'm looking for is harder to find.

But I can tell you about it. I remember the video as taking place outside of a facility in which votes were being counted. It was sung by a crowd of supporters more like the ones who showed up outside the federal courthouse in Lower Manhattan on Tuesday for Trump's arraignment on a 34-count indictment—that is, by strange, lonesome, faintly dusty-looking older people in patriotic activewear, and a handful of somehow more cartoonish younger ones, all of whom give the impression of having arrived separately, alone, and by car. They all start singing around the same time, but you could not really say that they are singing together. Everyone is doing their utmost, but they are all singing both as if no one else is there and as if the force of their caterwauling might bring down the walls of that (Arizona? Michigan?) municipal building like Jericho, and so keep their clammy pink king on his throne a little while longer. A couple dozen soloists, swaying or with their hands raised in the megachurch fashion, each on their respective journeys, standing in a parking lot and singing over each other in the hope that it might somehow stop votes from being counted.

The predominant feeling of Trumpism is a claustrophobia edging towards panic: the feeling of sitting in a car in a dead-stopped traffic jam, a television blaring on a commercial break as sunlight pours through the windows, the idle and unreasoning resentment you feel towards someone ordering ahead of you in a drive-through, a darkened room with a computer in it that no one ever turns off, a cocktail reception at which no one is listening to anyone else. Trump has lived his life in this sort of gilded confinement; unnatural as it is, it's long been his natural habitat. A lot of Americans live like this, too, and if it is lonesome and arid and joyless—and it is—that is also what they see as safe. And lonely though it is, this world is busy and even crowded. It is not a community anymore than those weird old ladies in the parking lot were a choir, but if everyone is fundamentally there for themselves, they are also there together.

I am not proud of how many of these people I can describe to you. There is the man who goes to Trump rallies in a custom-made t-shirt that reads Blacks For Trump; he got into a lot of crowd shots, often seated behind the man himself. Or if you prefer there is the man who wears a suit printed with a cartoonish pattern of bricks, like you might find on a wall. Trump called him up on stage at a rally in 2019, one of the many Trump rallies that Brick Suit (that's his handle on various social media platforms) attended. There is a Pennsylvania man named Vincent, who affects the look of an unscrupulous jazz club owner; he poses for photos with other Trump rally attendees, who have for reasons too embarrassing to go into here convinced themselves that he is not a short man in a little hat who drives around in a car covered in Trump stickers but in fact John F. Kennedy, Jr., both much less dead than previously believed and devoted to the bloated and blinking collapsed star that keeps this constellation of goons pinned in orbit.

All of these people are selling something, or just selling themselves; they would be doing this, I imagine, even if Trump wasn't around to hitch a ride on. In a sense, Trump is incidental to their respective gambits. He represents the exaltation and triumph of their respective smaller cruelties and the promise of all the same things happening forever, but there's no substance to any of it beyond that. In another sense, he's essential to it because he is the one who brings in the crowds through which these soloists can scramble to the front. When Trump was arraigned on Tuesday, amid a bleak circuslike atmosphere in which the assembled media outnumbered those protesting for and against the man, they couldn't sit it out.

The man who wears the custom Blacks For Trump t-shirts wore the wrong varietal on Tuesday, then changed after a reporter pointed it out. Brick Suit posted an AI-generated image of Trump leading a crowd of his supporters; the Trump in that image was the strong man of Trumpist imagery, with a v-shaped torso and cheekbones and a look of stern command. The crowd, as in other AI art, was a collection of implausible aesthetic defects, little smudgy faces smirking on or sliding off uncanny melon-ball heads. Everyone that was there was familiar; they show up wherever the cameras are, whenever the cameras are there. A man holding a sign on the Trump side of the protest denouncing "Bragg's Jews" has been holding up antisemitic signs anywhere there were cameras for years; he was at Occupy Wall Street, too, although that protest was quick to disavow him.

Even the better-known clout goblins in attendance struggled to rise above the din of all those simultaneous aggro monologuists at work. Representatives Marjorie Taylor-Greene and George Santos, whose jobs depend upon attaching their respective pathologies to Trump's more popular program, were instantly mobbed by a press corps that seemed not to know why it was there, but they were quite literally unable to make themselves heard. Their speeches were drowned out by the sound made by dozens of whistles. NBC's Ben Collins found the man who was giving them out; the man with the whistles was also there to support Trump, and told Collins that the purpose of the whistles was to "make a noise, make a noise, everybody must hear us." He said that he didn't know Greene or Santos were even there. Donald Trump, even now, is still the only person that can get this coalition of crabs in a barrel to shut up and look in the same direction, even if they are all just trying to figure out a way to muscle into the shot.

The idea that something is unprecedented means a great deal more to the national news media than it does to just about anyone else, but also that meaning is fluid. So much of what Trump did as president was unprecedented, in its open and overt corruption and its relentlessly brutish presentation, that it overwhelmed the media's capacity to respond to it. Or, maybe more accurately, the gaudy preening bully-boy dunce shit that is Trump's sole stock in trade presented as a category error; even into the pandemic, the national press was hunting in vain for the moment when Trump would display "a striking new tone" and start acting like a president.

What Trump did instead, which is the only stuff that Trump ever does—try to get people to give him money and try to stay out of trouble, neither of which he is especially good at considering that they're all he's done his whole life—was always plainly not that. The stuff he got indicted for last week and arraigned for on Tuesday was the sort of dumb shit a person would do if and only if they believed that they could never be held responsible for anything.

But he'd done so many things like that, for so long, that even the faint possibility of any of his actions drawing consequences arrived as a surprise. That he'd kept right on doing those things as president, and did them so oafishly, created a problem that the national media still evidently hasn't figured out; it's as if the ridiculous and implicating fact that Trump really was elected President of the United States somehow superseded the lurid fact pattern presented by his whole disgraceful life to date. If someone this ridiculous can be president, then the office—and the system it sits atop, and the political process that supports it—is much more ridiculous than any of the people involved in covering it can comfortably admit or allow. When the cable news channels killed clock between the moments when some thin rivulet of newslike goo trickled past, they did so in a tone that suggested something momentous was happening. Trump had makeup on the collar of his shirt and blazer; Maggie Haberman of the Times observed that Trump was "not enjoying this at all." On CNN, Van Jones said, more in stagey sorrow than equally stagey anger, that Trump looked like "a granddad having a very bad day."

To give the benefit of the doubt to the national institutions whose incapacity or co-optation or outright collapse was first indicated by Trump's election and then expedited throughout his presidency feels, in this case, like something much more overdetermined and embarrassing than merely missing the point. To acknowledge the reality of the moment, which is that things really are this stupid and this broken, is to admit to how manifestly untenable that moment is. Even into last week, as Ryan Cooper writes in the American Prospect, that was more than the media or political elite could admit. "Trump has not been indicted yet," Cooper writes in summing this attitude up, "which means that for some reason he shouldn’t have been."

That a former president is belatedly kinda-sorta getting in trouble for doing things he very clearly did would rightly stand out as momentous if you were someone who thought about presidents as figures of some inherent significance and reverence. How a person could have not just covered but merely been awake for Donald Trump's presidency and still believe that is harder for me to figure. But then I have less invested in this status quo, as someone who lives downhill and downwind of it, than I might if I were someone who understood explaining or preserving it as something like my job. More to the point, Trumpism—if that's what you want to call this combination of smash-and-grab political sadism and shameless disregard for any of that supposedly essential societal stuff—is already hard at work. "The cancer of elite impunity was sooner or later going to produce someone like Trump," Cooper writes, "who is just taking that culture to its logical end point of dictatorship."

On the merits, it seems very difficult to argue that this is not what Trump and the opportunists currently carrying that work forward in the states want to do. But if you insist upon understanding his very obvious efforts to that end as aberrations, instead of as "obvious efforts to that end," you will not just ignore the most important and urgent stuff, but be left only with words like "unprecedented" and a mood of strained and tragicomic somberness. That gambit, which is not any more subtle than anything else Trump does, depends upon both that presumption of impunity on the part of the authoritarians on the make and that strange disassociative reverence and infuriating abstraction from the people covering it and consenting to it. The shamelessness and brutality of the various bad actors angling for the kind of power that Trump had is what makes it go; the reflexive impulse to pour all that ugliness into the old respectable vessels is what lets it keep on happening.

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