Letitia James, the attorney general of New York, isn’t the first public official to coin a pithy phrase about Donald Trump, but hers was one of the more memorable ones.
James described Trump’s approach to paying business taxes as less “The Art of the Deal – it’s the art of the steal”. Talented lawyer as she is, maybe she should be in journalism, as it makes a nice headline. Or a clever political slogan, you might say, because anything, anything at all, that is done by, with, or to Donald Trump is deeply political, and this latest pursuit of him through the courts is precisely that.
That’s not to say it’s politically motivated – or a “witch hunt” as Trump describes any legitimate scrutiny of his activities. It’s simply to point out that, as with the Department of Justice’s pursuit of him over the stash of official and classified documents at Mar-a-Lago, it inevitably becomes political, just because of who Trump is and what he represents.
The same goes for the Congressional inquiry into the shameful events of 6 January 2021, tasked, among other things, with determining the precise role the then president played in the bizarre and bloody insurrection. The image – not I concede, the truth – is becoming one of Trump besieged, victimised by his enemies who are fearful of his mighty political potency. Official America seems to be set on the strange task of making Trump look like a victim, and creating sympathy and support for him. This is a deeply dangerous trend for a man who deserves no such compassion.
President Joe Biden talks about the “battle for the soul of America”, and the equality of justice. Well, the notion of equality before the law is a laudable one, but is sadly not one that reflects the reality, or can survive the fact that Trump is a former president and is unofficially running to get his old job back.
These official actions against Trump, whatever their merits, have two unfortunate consequences. The first is legal: they will make him all the more determined to get back into the White House, and probably with a Republican majority in the Senate soon, where he can once again pull and pervert the levers of power for his own personal protection.
Taking legal action against a sitting president is rightly a difficult and protracted process and, given the hyper partisan political culture of the United States, one that is doomed – as the various failed impeachment attempts against Trump in office demonstrate. A Trump run for the White House, and still more its recapture represents his “get out of jail free” card, almost literally.
Second, these various legalistic attacks on Trump inflame the MAGA base and worsen the divisions in America. The post-Trump period should have been one of “healing”. It has turned out to be no such thing, and that’s bad for the future of the country and, because of the places it occupies, for the world too. It weakens the country at a time when the world needs it to lead and project its best values into the global stage, as it is with Putin’s war on Ukraine.
The further embitterment of America’s political culture isn’t in the country’s best interests, or those of the world. It has further intensified Trump and the MAGA movement’s grip on the Republican Party, and poisoned it for at least as long as Trump walks the earth. It is an appalling thing to witness.
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It is perverse, because what should have happened after the last general election – which Trump lost, fair and square – is that America should have moved on, and on to a world with “less Trump” in it. Instead, we have “more Trump”. He is like some science fiction character that absorbs all the energy directed against him to make himself stronger. The more they try to tear him down, the more they substantiate the absurd idea that he’s some sort of rebel of the people, struggling to protect them from a corrupt, lying elite. The ironies are rich, but also deeply corrosive.
Remember when Hilary Clinton accused him of not paying his fair share of taxes in the 2016 debates. Trump’s reply was “that makes me smart”. A lot of Americans might agree that everyone tries to get their tax bills down and play the system; to many, what Trump did with his tax bill is less a crime and more a duty.
It’s terrifying really, because I’m not sure what will be left of American democracy after another term of Trump (and technically he could have two more terms, or install another family member for the second term of his second coming). What Ronald Reagan called “a shining city on a hill… God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace” would be a smouldering ruin. Convicting Trump of tax fraud doesn’t seem worth it.
Because America’s democratic and judicial systems still remain strong, no one can stop the relentless pursuit of Trump, and you may well argue, nor should they. But I cannot help feeling that it might have been better all round if they’d just ignore him. Fat chance, I know.